Why Does the Permitting Process Take So Long in San Francisco?

February 25, 2021 — Source: Mission Local

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by JOE ESKENAZI February 15

San Francisco stubbornly clung to 19th-century technology. That crippled it during a 21st-century pandemic.

'The amount of times that drawings have just been lost sitting on someone’s desk or in transit — you would be shocked.' Would we, though?

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Yourre papers to remodel yourre privy have been receiv'd and are in the queue, but we shan't be readin' them forre six weekes or morre.

On Sept. 9, the sun did not rise in San Francisco. Wildfire smoke shrouded the city, and masked figures scurried about while bathed in a jailbreak orange glow. 

It was on the next morning that the incident occurred. 

On the first-floor lobby of the city’s one-stop permitting center, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., a man reached the end of his patience. He yelled to anyone who would listen that he could not handle the Department of Building Inspection permitting system, that he could not obtain the necessary in-person meetings to obtain his permits, and that his projects could not move forward. 

Frustration with the Department of Building Inspection’s archaic and arcane systems was common even before the pandemic. But, of note, this man is a permit expediter; negotiating these systems is his job.

He went on to shout that he could not earn a living or even feed himself if he could not obtain these permits — and he could not obtain these permits without an in-person meeting, even in the midst of a pandemic. He lamented that he should not have to cheat the system like everyone else. So he threatened to kill himself. 

He then said he would make his case to the mayor herself. But, as he left to walk to City Hall, he horrified the onlookers with what he said next: “I will kill myself in front of her.” 

We won’t keep you in suspense: This man was saved. Sources tell us that he was intercepted by sheriff’s deputies at or near City Hall and placed on a 5150 involuntary hold. He has, by all appearances, stabilized and improved. He’s even back on the job. He’s working. 

The system that drove him to the brink, however, isn’t. 

Several years ago, a San Francisco architect was on a job in the far north of the state. He matter-of-factly told a Truckee-based colleague that, in the big city, they’re still doing permit applications in person and on paper. On big jobs, boxes of material might have to be rolled through the building on a dolly. It might even take a few trips. And these materials are often marked up by hand — and the only way to get things done concurrently is to provide multiple paper copies to multiple individuals or groups.  

The engineer from Truckee was dumbfounded. In Truckee, they’d been requesting and receiving permits digitally for well more than a decade. Compared to San Francisco, Truckee is Wakanda. 

San Francisco’s paper-and-pen-based system, in which plans are manually moved from person to person to person in a time-consumingly sequential and linear manner, is a setup that traces back to the dawn of paper and pens. One can only imagine the handwritten plan-check comments on Geoffrey Chaucer’s renovation: Ye nede a litel lesse wattle and a litel morre daub, methinks. 

“The ability to submit paperless is a humongous difference between San Francisco and other jurisdictions,” says an architect who works throughout the Bay Area. “You have to physically shlep giant rolls of drawings to the department to have them circulate around. And the amount of times that drawings have just been lost sitting on someone’s desk or in transit — you would be shocked.” 

Would we, though? Stories of the building department’s stubborn resistance to technological improvements and best-practices and its jarring malfeasance and corruption — and the undeniable symbiosis at play here — have become commonplace. Far from being shocked, we are inured. 

And that was one thing when buildings were rising and the Department of Building Inspection was ankle-deep in money. Then the pandemic hit, the economy was staggered — and, to top it off, the department’s stubborn insistence on retaining antiquated systems requiring in-person meetings and reams of paperwork has additionally crippled it. 

The Department of Building Inspection is an “enterprise department” that generates its own revenue. But a down economy, coupled with an inability to process permits, has led to a deficit. And now the department, like that distraught permit expediter, is struggling to make a living or even feed itself. 

line outside DBI

In this March 16, 2020 photo, a line of permit-seekers stretched out the door of the Department of Building Inspection and down Mission Street at the exact moment the mayor and health director were announcing the initial shelter-in-place order.

And, of course, it didn’t need to be this way. 

Just as the pandemic has exposed the greater iniquities of American society, it has exposed the regressive nature of this city’s building department. 

We’ve written about this, as have others, but it bears repeating now: The Department of Building Inspection inked a a deal in 2011 with the government software company Accela to create a master system that could’ve made driving a van full of documents to the building department and dropping it off in several trips a vestige of the past, alongside phone booths, smoking sections, and non-bluegrass uses of washboards. 

If Accela — or any modern system — had been installed, you wouldn’t need to submit hard copies of material in paper, to be marked up by hand. One presumes customers wouldn’t then need to make an appointment to walk back into a government building (yes, during a pandemic) to pick up those handwritten comments. But that’s how it is now. 

One presumes that reams of forms would be eliminated. One presumes that that the electronic forms replacing the extant forms wouldn’t be so jarringly antiquated that the prefix “Mr.” is placed, de-facto, in front of the name slots. But that’s how it is now. 

You could have done all of this digitally. Like they do in Truckee. Like they do in many other Bay Area locales; a city architect tells me he recently submitted electronically to permit a bathroom remodel in the South Bay, and the whole thing was approved in a matter of days. 

In San Francisco, meanwhile, we are informed that last week a city plan checker told a resident that her (paper) plans are in his queue, but he won’t get to them for six weeks — at least. 

So, that’s what you could do if you had Accela operational. But, of course, it isn’t. San Francisco’s Planning Department got it installed, as have building departments in New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia; and Oakland, California. But not San Francisco’s building department.