As demolitions rise in Austin, audit questions safety enforcement


Highlights

An audit found that safety regulations for demolitions in Austin are lax.

The city might be violating state law by allowing demolitions without asbestos tests for some properties.

Demolitions are happening most densely in Austin’s urban core.

In recent years, Austin has seen a growing number of building demolitions as the city continues to redevelop, but an audit presented Tuesday found the city is failing to ensure that basic safety provisions are followed.

The audit found that city staffers processing the permits are not fully considering some safety risks involving demolitions, including proper disposal of lead materials and state-required asbestos tests. The city also places little oversight on property owners who are tasked with checking for lead and asbestos, and oftentimes it fails to notify neighbors when a demolition is about to occur, the city auditor’s report said.

The report also showed that demolitions in recent years have been most concentrated in the city’s central core, with most occurring just south of downtown, in East Austin and in Tarrytown. Southeast Austin also saw scores of demolitions as part of the Onion Creek buyouts.

For reasons only attributable to long forgotten City Hall lore, the report found, the demolition process has been split between the Development Services Department, which the audit said should be in charge of the process, and the Historic Preservation Office.

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose Central and South Austin District 9 has seen the most demolitions since 2008, said she has heard from constituents who were caught off guard by some demolitions. She said they expressed concerns about the dust created by demolitions.

“I think your report highlights some areas where we need more policy,” Tovo said after hearing the auditor’s presentation at a committee meeting Tuesday. “It’s a high enough priority for me that I probably will proceed with some policy actions.”

The audit found that while the city requires property owners to test for asbestos before demolishing commercial and multifamily structures, it has no way of verifying that any tests were performed by a qualified inspector, which is required under state law.

ALSO READ: Austin struggling to find enough takers for LeadSmart home repairs

In reviewing a sample of permits, investigators found that fewer than half of the properties required to have asbestos tests had any paperwork regarding a test filed with the state, creating doubt that any had been performed.

City policy also does not follow the lead abatement recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency suggests that property owners should check for lead before the city permits a demolition of a home built before 1978. (Eighty percent of the demolitions reviewed in the audit involved buildings built before 1978.)

San Antonio, Dallas and Houston also do not require lead tests in their demolition process, according to research from the Development Services Department.

The audit suggested that Austin Energy and Austin Water should become involved in the demolition process to protect utility infrastructure and to see if the teardowns are an opportunity to install more accurate water meters.

In addition, the audit said the city has lax policies on notifying residents about demolitions near their homes.

RELATED: Residents protest demolition of East Austin piñata store

Austin residents typically are alerted to pending demolitions when they involve multifamily buildings with more than five units or if the work is being reviewed by the Historic Landmark Commission. No notifications are sent for any other structures, often leaving neighbors unaware and unable to appeal a pending demolition, the audit said.

And given that in 2015 and 2016 the city approved 90 percent of the roughly 1,700 demolition permit applications on the same day the staff conducted a review, “a neighbor’s ability to appeal is limited,” the audit said.

The audit recommended that Development Services conduct meetings with stakeholders such as property owners, real estate professionals, contractors, historic landmark groups and city staffers to review the permit process. Those meetings should lead to a redesign of the permit process to include controls for conducting safety reviews, the audit said.

Development Services managers agreed with the recommendations and said they would begin conducting the meetings with a target of implementing a new demolition permit process in September 2018.

ALSO READ: Old East Austin church razed despite questions of its historic worth



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