City Hall

Pay to Play? Dallas Proposes New Fees for Quicker Single-Family Building Permits.

in 2020, the pandemic helped create a backlog of hundreds of building permits in the city of Dallas. The city has been playing catch-up ever since.
in 2020, the pandemic helped create a backlog of hundreds of building permits in the city of Dallas. The city has been playing catch-up ever since. Photo by Daniel Halseth on Unsplash
As Alan Hoffmann sees it, when it came to constructing residential projects, the city of Dallas' permitting office used to be "the best in the region." But Hoffmann, the founder and CEO of Hoffmann Homes, said all that changed when the pandemic hit.

Once the pandemic reached Dallas, permit processing was moved online, and staffing shortages led to a massive backlog of building permits, meaning many projects were delayed and became pricier across the city.

Around the same time, the city suspended what's known as the Gold Card Program. The program was available to builders who had enough experience with the city and the work they needed permits for. Builders in this program could get their permits in a matter of hours.

“If you did a certain amount of volume and number of builds in the city, you would qualify for this training and make sure that you as a builder know how to submit a building permit application so it could be rapidly reviewed and accepted,” Hoffmann explained.

It was a good program, he said, but when the pandemic happened, the city said it no longer had the resources to continue it. “They just couldn’t do it,” he said.

Now, the city is proposing a new initiative called the Rapid Single-Family VIP Program, which also aims to help speed the permitting process along for a select group of people hoping to build single-family homes. What determines if you’re a VIP in the program? Money. If you can pay the fee to be a part of this program, you could potentially get your permit the same day you applied for it.

The city "knows the economics,” Hoffmann said. “They know we’re spending money to keep a project waiting, and they know we’re a captive audience and, you know, they’re going to capitalize on it.”

For those who can afford it, the program is an option, Hoffmann said. If it came down to it, he would enroll in the program to move a project along. Still, he hopes the city also has plans for the people who may not be able to pay the fee, and those whose projects have been stuck in the permitting backlog for weeks or months. 

“They know we’re spending money to keep a project waiting and they know we’re a captive audience and, you know, they’re going to capitalize on it.” – Alan Hoffmann, Hoffmann Homes

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“We welcome [the Rapid Single-Family VIP Program],” Hoffmann said. “We’re not adverse to it. I would like to see the guys that are stuck in the system who are lost, whose permits are in the process of seven, eight, 10 weeks, that they go looking for them and help them. Take care of them first.”

Laughing, Hoffmann added: “I think they’re trying to serve us. Maybe they feel like the guys that can afford to pay for the permit fee are going to be a little more noisy. I don’t know.”

Phil Crone, executive director of the Dallas Builders Association, had similar feelings about the proposed program. “It’s great in theory and will give a few people an opportunity to move to the front of the line and perhaps get their permit done in hours, opposed to the weeks or months that it’s taken,” he said. “I think that’s going to be helpful for those fortunate enough to use it.”

But he isn't sure it will help the people who really need it. Crone said, “It’s nice if we can kind of pick a few and move them forward, but at the same time, I’d rather give the ones that are stuck a helping hand.” He’s heard the city argue that the Gold Card Program wasn’t equitable and that the Rapid Single-Family VIP program is a more equitable alternative.

He’s not sure how the new program, which he likened to a pay-to-play system, is supposed to be more equitable when there’s a good number of people who can’t pay. “I love the system that we had, and I’m not saying that has to be the only way to do it,” Crone said. But he thinks any system should at least be objective, rather than depending on whether you have enough money.

Regardless, Hoffmann said there have been improvements in the permitting process in the last month.

This includes the hiring of the city’s new chief building official Andrew Espinoza, an updated version of the software processing online permit applications and pop-up weekend permitting events to help address the backlog of applications. Many of the recent improvements, Hoffmann said, can likely be attributed to Espinoza, who was hired to fill the position in June. 

“This is not the only project that we’re trying to roll out." – Andrew Espinoza, city of Dallas

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Reached for comment, Espinoza said the ability to charge a fee for expedited permitting services has been baked into the city’s code for some time now. For example, the city’s Express Plan Review Service offers expedited permitting for commercial projects for a fee. Also part of the city manager’s proposed budget, this service could be expanded to include more projects.

The Rapid Single-Family VIP Program is essentially a smaller version of the Express Plan Review Service, except that it applies exclusively to single-family homes. While the city has been providing some form of this, Espinoza said city officials have never really advertised it or extended it to more than just commercial developments. “I think by including [the Rapid Single-Family VIP Program], we’re specializing our services based on your specific needs,” he said. He said that’s what makes it equitable.

“The equity piece fits in nicely because we’re providing services tailored to someone’s specific project timelines,” he said. “Some folks may say ‘Well, I’m OK with two or three weeks’ or ‘I’m OK with 30 days.’ But someone else may say ‘Hey, I need it today. What services do you have available?’”

That person may get what they need out of the Rapid Single-Family VIP Program. But Espinoza stressed that this is just one of many approaches he and his team are considering to beef up permitting in Dallas, and make sure things get built in the city in a timely manner. “This is not the only project that we’re trying to roll out,” he said. “We’re actually launching a few initiatives to reduce turnaround time.”

Espinoza said that on top of developing new programs, the department is also trying to move into a new building and hire more people to help process the many incoming permits. He said, “We’re filling these positions and we can’t wait to onboard these folks because I really feel like the city of Dallas, again, is providing a service based on your specific project needs.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn