Dallas Still Years Off from Building Permit Fix

Buildings Permit concept with imaginary General Urban Plan and indications of urban destinations and zoning planning. | Image by Francesco Scatena, Shutterstock

Like many cities around the country, Dallas suffers from an outdated and inefficient building permit process, hampered by staffing issues, sluggish internal processes, and a flawed software system.

That is what Dallas City Council members were told on Wednesday, despite assurances by building officials that the problem would be solved by October.

The number of building permits issued by a City is a key metric for gauging economic growth and indicates how much construction and development is occurring at any given time.

Andrew Espinoza became Dallas’ chief building official in June and accepted the herculean task of retooling the City’s building permit process into something modern, intuitive, and user-friendly.

Espinoza, however, is far from crossing the finish line.

Espinoza told council members on Wednesday that issues could persist for years and that the lack of staff in the Development Services Department (DSD) to handle the permit intake slowed its ability to make more significant progress.

According to Espinoza, the department has 54 vacant permit-review jobs waiting to be filled.

Since starting his job as the DSD director, Espinoza has expanded the scope of individual roles within the department in an attempt to develop more efficient lines of communication that better align with the needs and wants of the development community.

He has also taken steps toward speeding the process back up to pre-COVID-19 levels. Not much of a dent has been made, however.

It is no exaggeration that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a seismic shift in how people, businesses, and local officials carried out their everyday duties. At the pandemic’s start, city officials scrambled to move their old-fashioned permitting process online to a new cloud-based software.

Unfortunately, rather than being proactive in modernizing its permitting process, the City was caught off guard by the abrupt change to an online system. This lack of forward-thinking by then-city officials contributed to the current backlog of building permits presently looming over the city.

Typically, it took an average of three days to issue a Single-Family Residential (SFR) permit in Dallas in 2019.

According to the latest DSD permit data, the process now takes about 1,200% longer, averaging roughly 40 days.

In terms of an appropriate issuance time for an SFR permit, Dallas has slipped pretty far from its heyday when these types of permits were advertised as having a “same-day turnaround.”

Phil Crone, executive director of the Dallas Builders Association (DBA), commented:

“You can’t have a situation continue where they aren’t able to meet their IT and technical needs. Currently, we can’t measure the most important bit of data on all of this, like, ‘How long is it going to take for your permit?’”

As it stands, developers are not pleased with the unintuitive software nor confident that Dallas’ permit backlog will get a permanent solution.

Multiple North Texas cities receive “many times the permit applications of Dallas, and they’re somehow able, using the same software systems,” said Kelly Reynolds, a local developer with Keen Homes.

“In fact,” Reynolds emphasized, “they’re able to turn those around much quicker!”

Dallas City Councilmember Tennell Atkins of District 8 expressed frustration with the DSD’s lack of actionable progress in solving the permitting backlog.

“If we don’t get this right, you won’t be here. No one will be here. We will not have a safe city because that’s what pays the bills. The developer pays the bills,” Atkins said.

As Reynolds put it:

“Going back three years, the City has missed opportunities on many millions of dollars of revenue from this permitting delay,” he said. “These homes could have been completed. They could have been occupied. These people could have been paying taxes.”

Solving Dallas’ permitting backlog is an uphill battle, but Reynolds believes DSD is heading in the right direction.

“It’s just like turning a battleship. It doesn’t happen quickly,” Reynolds explained. “Ultimately, I think they’re sincere, but it’s just a matter of implementing and executing their plan.”

City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who identified the building permit issue as a top priority in his 100-day performance improvement plan, was not in attendance during Wednesday’s city council meeting. Likewise, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson was also absent from the latest permit discussion.

Broadnax was reportedly out of town while Johnson remained home with sick kids, but neither excuse is satisfactory to Dallas residents or developers when it means the two most prominent Dallas officials skip out on one of the final permitting discussions of the year.

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  1. Skipper

    Is Dallas ever going to stop being the 400,000 person city? Look at Houston, Plano, McKinney forward thinking means good growth build Highways where there are none, expand and grow. Fix the system stop with the excesses.

  2. Anonymous Architect

    The City should really consider hosting a round table discussion with architects, GCs, developers, and neighboring permit departments. We have all somehow managed to navigate COVID utilizing software platforms far more effectively. There are plenty of architects that would be willing to be contracted a few hours per week to peer review drawings. Otherwise, farm this service out to other jurisdictions that can turn things around more quickly.


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