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  • Dustin Gardiner

‘It’s not tenable’: California bill aims to erase permits delays that hold up housing projects

SACRAMENTO — Sam Moss likens the obstacles he faces getting building permits from San Francisco to a self-inflicted wound. Every time the city delays for weeks or months, it sucks up finite funding that could otherwise be used to build more units to combat the city’s housing crisis.

Moss, executive director of Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit builder, said the most frustrating part is that the delays are often due to the subjective findings of city reviewers.

“It is always difficult, 100% of the time,” Moss said of applying for building permits. “It’s not tenable, and it’s one of the many reason that a new affordable housing building can take up to 10 years.”

Moss’ sentiment is a familiar frustration among California developers, many of whom say long delays getting permits approved for different phases of construction work, such as electrical and plumbing, drive up the cost of building new units and can ultimately kill desperately needed housing projects.

It also highlights how concerns about the difficultly of building new housing in the state loom large at nearly every stage of the process, even long after a project has cleared basic planning and zoning approvals at the local level. State Assembly Member Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister (San Benito County), recently introduced legislation that aims to remove that building permit logjam for housing projects by requiring cities to review a permit application within a set deadline and provide clear application instructions to builders. He said he’s carrying the bill because he worries that unnecessary delays are exacerbating California’s dire housing shortage and making it particularly difficult for developers to secure funding for affordable housing. “These delays lasting months or years can derail a project’s financing,” Rivas told The Chronicle. “In some instances, projects just die altogether.” His measure, AB2234, would require local governments to approve or deny various building permits within a strict timeline: 30 days for small housing projects, with 25 or fewer units, and within 60 days for large projects, with 26 or more units. Carpenter Royce Vaughn works at a construction site at San Carlos and 18th Street in San Francisco, where garages are being converted into ADUs.Yalonda M. James/The ChronicleSupporters of the bill said many cities are already reviewing the bulk of permit applications in less time, but the measure is designed to catch bad actors who take months, or even years, to take action. Patrick Hannan, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection, said it has made a series of operational changes in the last year to speed up processing times and improve customer service. “These efforts have already begun to produce results,” he said in an email. “For the past two months, 60% of all over-the-counter permit applications were processed within two days, a substantial improvement compared to the previous year.” In addition, AB2234 would require cities and other local jurisdictions to post templates of model permit applications, along with a checklist of the information a developer must provide. The bill would apply to what planners call “post-entitlement” building permits, which are non-discretionary and allow developers to proceed with specific phases of construction work, such as pouring concrete or installing electrical wires. Cities review the permits to ensure the work complies with health, safety and building codes. There is a question, however, about whether the bill would apply to San Francisco because it’s the only city in the state that has discretionary building permit reviews, meaning permits can be appealed by neighbors. Corey Smith, deputy director of the Housing Action Coalition, an advocacy group working on the bill, said the measure is intended to apply to all cities in the state. He said bill sponsors have notified city officials they want to amend the measure to ensure San Francisco is included. State legislators have, in recent years, focused primarily on passing bills that aim to make it harder for cities to block housing projects earlier in the process, during the “pre-entitlement” phase when plans for a project can often be denied for a host of discretionary reasons, such as design aesthetics or neighbors’ objections. Vince Rocha, vice president of housing and community development at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an economic advocacy group, said lawmakers have made major strides to expedite that earlier phase of the approval process. Silicon Valley Leadership Group is sponsoring the bill, alongside the Housing Action Coalition. “Now, we have a bottleneck in a different place and we want to clear that up,” he said. “It’s happening enough where it’s impacting a lot of projects.”

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