On the campaign trail this year I have consistently heard complaints from Houstonians about the difficulty in getting building permits from the City. The complaints mostly centered on exceedingly long delays. Many reported waiting as long as nine months to get a permit approved. The process is so time-consuming and complicated that many applicants hire “expediters” to shepherd their applications through the process.
The process has been particularly challenging for homeowners attempting to rebuild after Harvey, many of whom are new to the process. The rollout of the new City of Houston rule requiring slab elevations to be raised to two feet above the 500-year Base Flood Elevation has been especially problematic.
Design professionals and developers who work in jurisdictions surrounding Houston and in other cities in Texas have told me the process at the City takes much longer and is much more difficult than other jurisdictions. Several real estate brokers have told me they are actively steering clients away from building in the City because of the added costs, uncertainty, and delays in getting permits.
Obviously, we must ensure that any new construction complies with our building codes, but this dysfunction is unacceptable. Based on the input I have received from many who are regularly involved in this process, I believe there are some concrete steps that can be taken to significantly improve the process.
- The “one-stop” procedure needs to be expanded and “codified.” Specifically, the City should allow self-certification, abbreviated certifications, and conditional approval for applicants in which there are relatively few life/safety concerns. Specific guidelines should be adopted so that it is clear to the customers which applications qualify for the less stringent review.
- There should be greater specialization within the permitting process. For starters, single-family residential permitting should be a completely separate group from those who work on commercial applications. And even within those areas, there should be specialization: For example, there should be different paths for professional builders versus homeowners doing minor repairs or renovations.
- The same reviewer should stay with the application from filing to completion.
- All permit requirements should be reviewed periodically to evaluate whether they are necessary or overlap other requirements.
- “Packages” of all required permit applications should be assembled for business types routinely requesting permits to begin operations – e.g., gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants.
- The City should have an outsourcing option to expand its capacity especially when there are spikes in permit applications – e.g. after floods. Also, a study should be conducted to determine whether any classes of permit applications could be effectively outsourced to an independent review group.
- Managers responsible for customer service should have all employees that affect customer service in the same command chain. Some applications require review by other City departments (referred to as “outside” review). Those reviewing the application in other departments do not report to those in the permitting center who are responsible for getting the application processed, effectively taking control of the process out of their hands.