Dallas builders are still blocked by city hall. Now the city manager has a deadline to fix it.
City manager TC Broadnax has until May 18 to produce a plan to fix Dallas’ broken permit system, which for the past two years has caused months of delays for developers trying to build homes and businesses in the city. That means thousands of dollars in losses for developers and millions that aren’t added to the city’s tax rolls. The city of Dallas is experiencing a much-publicized housing shortage, and builders can’t get us out of it largely for one reason: They can’t get permits quickly.
Mayor Eric Johnson created the Permits Task Force in February, appointing Councilman Paula Blackmon and public policy consultant (and permit expert) Macey Davis as co-chairs. Blackmon sent a memo on Thursday requesting that Broadnax and his team inform the city council of a plan that “should include timelines, actions and feedback from affected industries.” The briefing will take place on May 18.
This is the most direct instruction to resolve this crisis to date. Previous plans to fix the problem have relied on the diagnosis. In October, the city’s former economic development chief called the city’s process an “autopsy.” “We’re looking at this thing from top to bottom,” Eric Anthony Johnson, who resigned in January, told city council.
May marks seven months since the city began pushing the corpse.
“We’re getting to the point where we either have to blow it all up or fix what we have,” Blackmon said. “It’s an archaic system that we’ve patched up and patched up. He finally caught up with us.
The city’s permit office, headquartered in a squat building on Jefferson Boulevard called the Oak Cliff Civic Center, has never been a picture of efficiency. But that was the devil the developers knew. Before the pandemic, they lined up before sunrise to get a meeting with city staff to review their permits. It is important that sponsors and their sub-contractors are able to anticipate an appropriate schedule. Many say it’s been impossible since March 2020, and it’s not just because of the pandemic.
The city was in the process of setting up a new online system when workers had to be sent home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The software was deployed too soon and the staff were not sufficiently trained. The backlog of permits has grown to more than 900 projects in a queue. It took the city about a year to clean it up. Delays have gone from days to weeks to months.
Now, two years later, it still takes the city an average of 42 days to process a permit for a single-family home. (That’s an improvement from the same time in 2021, when it took an average of 113 days to do the same job.)
Phil Crone, CEO of the Dallas Builders Association, says most other cities do the same job in half the time or less. “I hope the city manager feels the same way we do, that it’s a now or never time and we need to start moving forward,” Crone said. “We are going to head into the abyss if we don’t have a coherent plan and something achievable here.”
Dallas does not facilitate permit approvals. The city’s zoning is a loosely controlled patchwork of chaos, made up of over 1,000 planned development districts that allow developers to do different things depending on where they’re building. This mess is not easy for city staff to manage.
Also, says Blackmon, the software that manages permits, ProjectDox, is not compatible with the city’s software that manages land use, called Posse. (The city is working to replace Posse as a land management system, which is expected to happen in May.)
The city manager has allocated funds to three third-party companies to help staff review permits and is working to add a fourth. On top of that, Dallas hasn’t had a building manager since the retirement of Philip Sykes in March 2020. One of the main duties of this position is to ensure clearance runs smoothly and efficient. Blackmon notes that the city is making “steady progress” in hiring for these positions and is interviewing candidates for the top spot.
“It’s time that we stop sending a note here and go to this (board) committee and do this, and get everyone in the room together and start coming up with solutions,” he said. said Blackmon. “You have to look at policies, you have to look at resources, you have to look at staffing.”
Broadnax appointed Will Mundinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive, to help resolve the process. He briefed the council’s government performance and finance management committee once a month to keep the council informed of his findings and how long it takes to get the permits through. I didn’t meet anyone who said anything bad about him or his work. But everyone agrees that this problem has gone on for too long.
Magazine D has published seven articles on this topic since 2020. The Dallas Morning News published a number of chronicles and reports on its progress, as did TV stations.
“Where are we right now?” asked Crone, the president of the builders association, when I asked him the same question. “The fact that you and I are still talking about it really speaks to how frustrating it has been for us and continues to be. I hear every day about two or three builders who are, to some degree, stuck in the system. “
I posed the same question to Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, whom the mayor once empowered to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“I get three to five emails, texts, or calls every day, including weekends, from frustrated developers,” he said. “Unless I see drastic changes ahead of budget season, I’m going to be prepared to try and take drastic action during budget season.”
This “drastic action” would be to transfer more permitting operations to private contractors. West also echoed builders’ desire to allow architects and engineers to self-certify their work, bypassing at least part of the permit approval process. They would put their licenses on the line to support their projects.
West says he often has to involve deputy city managers to deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis. He praised the work they do, but lambasted the process. “It should be a system that works without the involvement of the deputy city manager in each case,” he said.
“In my opinion, that’s the most important thing the city manager should be focusing on right now and I hope he does,” West said.
None of this changes the current reality on the ground. Homebuilder Alan Hoffman, of Alan Hoffman Homes, is working on eight three- and four-bedroom homes near Peavy Road, not far from White Rock Lake. These are all net-zero projects, the kind of homes that align with the goals of the city’s climate action plan. They’re not cheap – they’re listed north of $800,000 – but it does add housing stock to a city that desperately needs it.
He says he has been waiting for a permit for 15 weeks to start building his third house. He says he can’t get a building loan without a permit; in the meantime, he is paying interest on a development loan he had to obtain for the land. “It cost me more than six figures,” he said. “It’s a quantifiable thing.”
I asked him what he planned to do after he finished this project.
“Build somewhere else,” he laughs.
Matt Goodman is the Online Editorial Director of Magazine D. He wrote about a surgeon who killed, a man who…