The issue heated up this summer when the mayor and some on City Council cited delays as one of many reasons they wanted to fire City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Depending on whom you ask, however, the situation hasn't improved much.
The initial drama blew over when Broadnax and Mayor Eric Johnson agreed to put the firing talk aside and work on getting the city back on track. Broadnax laid out a 100-day plan to get some of this work done. “This plan will help us move forward through the end of the fiscal year to tackle many of the high-priority focus areas of the City Council,” Broadnax said in a July 19 memo. The plan listed development services as its top priority.
Broadnax’s 100 days are now running out, and there hasn’t been much progress on the permitting delays, according to builders.
Phil Crone, executive director of the Dallas Builders Association, said he has a love-hate relationship with the city’s Development Services Department right now. He admitted the city has made many improvements in the department and speaks fondly of its new director, Andrew Espinoza. Then, he looks at the wait times builders still face to receive all their required permits.
“For all the new things that they’re rolling out and the enthusiasm to take on this problem, the most important aspect of it – how long it’s taking – really hasn’t improved,” Crone said. “I’m trying to balance my appreciation for how hard they’re working on the problem with my continued frustration with the overall lack of improvement.”
You can see that lack of improvement in the answers to a survey the Dallas Building Association conducted.
Some 81% of respondents said their permits took 10 weeks or more to process. “That’s not really an improvement on the situation that we’ve had over the last year or so,” Crone said. “It’s been worse, certainly, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to being in line with surrounding cities and the time frames that you see there. It just shows we’ve got a long, long way to go.”
The survey wasn’t able to identify a reason for the delays, but it was able to provide some sense of when they’re happening.
About 77% of builders who responded to the survey said they were waiting three or more weeks for their permits to be prescreened; eight in ten said they waited more than four weeks for zoning reviews; and 73% said they waited more than three weeks for a new water and wastewater account to be set up. Crone said he knows from experience getting a water and wastewater account set up used to take only about 10 minutes.
“I’m trying to balance my appreciation for how hard they’re working on the problem with my continued frustration with the overall lack of improvement.” – Phil Crone, Dallas Builders Association
While these numbers provide a better understanding of the problem, Crone said there’s not enough information yet to determine the exact causes. And, from his perspective at least, there doesn’t seem to be much effort by the city to gather that information. “That’s what’s frustrating me right now,” he said.
Anecdotally, Crone said, he knows Dallas’ zoning can complicate some projects and make them take longer, that the city is generally short-staffed, which can prolong the process, and that the physical state of the permitting office isn’t doing anyone any favors either.
“Why are we still here despite a management team over the department that truly does care and really has helped people?” Crone said. “Why aren’t we moving the ball forward?”
Crone recalls Assistant City Attorney Majed A. al-Ghafry saying that everything would be perfect by the end of the year. “Obviously, what I’m telling you isn’t anywhere close to that yet,” Crone said.
Based on the findings of their survey, the people who didn’t have to wait up to 10 weeks for their permits were enrolled in efforts like the Rapid Single-Family VIP Program, which allows builders to pay a fee for a speedier permitting process for qualified projects.
Crone said some expansions to the program are in the works that will make more projects eligible for a faster review. On Nov. 15, the city will expand the program by allowing projects with a maximum size of 5,000 square feet. When it was rolled out, the program applied only to projects of 3,000 square feet or less. This may sound like progress, but Crone said he also worries that the city may have to pull staff away from processing permits outside of the program just to fulfill promises it has made to the builders in the program.
To Crone, it can sometimes feel like there’s no end in sight to the delays.
“Right now, we’re flying blind, and you and I keep talking about the same thing and wondering why we aren’t seeing progress,” Crone said. “Well, one thing I can definitively say is it’s because we’ve yet to find a way to measure it in a meaningful way, and I think people need to ask the city manager why that hasn’t happened after two and a half years.”
The city manager's office did not respond to a request for comment.
It seems like Dallas has tried to identify the causes of the delays through its own study, a report of which will be presented to City Council on Nov. 2. Along with the report, released in an Oct. 14 city memo, are 57 recommendations, such as making the process completely digital and filling more positions in the development services department. The department will put together a monthly report to help track how these recommendations are implemented. The report itself suggests it may take a while to see many of the proposed changes.
“Many of the recommendations made in this report are long term solutions that may take months or even years to achieve full implementation,” the report reads. "After these recommendations are successfully implemented, the city can consider additional process and operational changes that may provide quick and impactful improvements in service delivery."
Local real estate developer Nathaniel Barrett isn’t too enthusiastic about it all.
On Oct. 7, Barrett submitted permits for some simple electrical and plumbing work that the city said should take 2–3 days to process. “No movement yet on either of my outstanding permits,” Barrett said Friday. “It’s a huge problem for smaller tenants and operators like myself.” Barrett has even done what nearly everyone is told to do when facing such delays – contact their city council member – and he’s still waiting. One thing he and others have suggested is a limited review process for low-risk permits.
“If you’re not making changes to occupancy, egress or use (which is essentially all remodeling), the professional certifications of the architect and engineer stamping the plans are sufficient for the city to limit its review to a very narrow scope,” Barrett said. “That frees up staff time to focus on major remodels and new builds, where there is more risk.”
“It’s a huge problem for smaller tenants and operators like myself.” – Nathaniel Barrett, real estate developer
As for what the city found in its study and what’s recommended, Barrett said it all sounds great, but he still doubts Dallas’ ability to implement what’s suggested.
“Overall, they are fine suggestions,” Barrett said. “My bigger concern is that they are trying to do the same things, just more efficiently, which necessarily requires a great deal of effort, major software implementations, several hires and a lot of ‘doing more.’”
He’s heard of several key positions that continue to sit vacant and that some staffers have left for other jobs. “Given that situation, especially staffing and institutional knowledge problems, I am skeptical of the success of this initiative absent a major funding boost for the department,” Barrett added.
Development Services Department Director Andrew Espinoza, of course, is a bit more optimistic. Espinoza said he still thinks the department will be able to get turnaround times for new single-family residential permits down to 15 business days by the end of the year. By next spring or summer, he's hoping this wait could be reduced to three-to-five business days.
Still, he said he's not proud of where the department stands now. "While we're moving in the right direction, I'm not happy with where we are right now," he said.
A big part of the problem, he said, is technological. “We have two software platforms that do not communicate with one another,” Espinoza said. “It really slows down staff.”
Staffing is another challenge adding to the long delays. The department did a good job of recruiting last year, he said, but between the positions that were already vacant and the ones created in the recently approved budget, there are 77 positions left to fill.
Despite these struggles, Espinoza thinks the future looks promising for his department. "This has been a challenge for the department for some time," he said. "We've been limping and struggling through this since COVID hit. It's time to turn it around, and it's going to take us a few months to do so. But that is our North Star. That's where we're headed."