Building permits are the essential fuel for a city’s growth and tax base. So you would think that every local government would get this basic service properly. But not Dallas – where the application process has gone from horribly frustrating to downright broken.
The failure couldn’t have come at a worse time: the area is booming, people are moving there in droves, and companies are looking for where in North Texas they can do business most efficiently.
But in Dallas, even simple permits — for both commercial and residential projects — take months to get approved. Whole shots could be thrown away on one finicky detail. Too often, department staff members do not answer their phones; when they do, they don’t seem too concerned about solving the problem at hand.
“It’s an equal opportunity issue – pain and agony for developers big and small – that impacts the economic health of our city,” Linda McMahon, president of the Real Estate Council, said after sharing a dozen examples.
I’ve heard the exact same thing from developers in Dallas who won’t speak publicly because they fear what they describe as the swift and fierce revenge of the bureaucrats in the permissions office. This catch-22 is giving City Hall – especially its sustainability and construction department – an outing it doesn’t deserve.
The staggering delays cause businesses originally wanting a Dallas address to give up and head to the suburbs. They let the developers swear never to try their luck with our city again.
Why should you care? The escalating dysfunction robs our tax base of much-needed money to fund basic services like policing and potholes. There is also the double loss of new single-family homes and jobs, both in the construction projects themselves and in the employment opportunities that the built development would bring.
Dallas City Hall can tout its “Service First” motto all it wants, but the “can’t do” attitude in the building permit operation and its overused phrase of “You will having to reapply” is infuriating.
With the stakes so high — and senior executives painfully aware of the problem — it’s unfathomable that Dallas City Hall isn’t throwing everything it’s got into the permit quagmire.
As far as I can remember, the city’s permit operation, located in the Oak Cliff Civic Center on East Jefferson Boulevard, has hardly been a model of efficiency. Just before the pandemic, the department hit new lows when a new online application system created steep learning curves for city employees and customers.
When COVID-19 forced staff to work from home last spring, it sparked even more technology and training issues. “It was the perfect storm,” Dr. Eric Johnson told me a few days ago.
Johnson entered the eye of this disaster when he joined the city as chief of economic development and neighborhood services in March 2020. Just over a year later, he is not ready to blow up the department and start over, but he believes it needs a major realignment – “And we don’t have a lot of time to do that.”
McMahon hears daily about the damage already done. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me in the last 60 days that, ‘I’m never going to do another project in the city of Dallas again. Never, never, never,'” she said. “And I don’t blame them.”
Based on a 2020 economic impact study by the McMahon Group, the total revenue loss to the city for a three-month delay in permitting is $8.8 million.
Magazine D has regularly announced news about the permit mess since September, when staff member Bianca Montes reported that 900 applications were waiting to be processed. Accompanying each subsequent report from the magazine’s online staff is another promise from the city that backlogs are being eliminated and fixes being installed.
Finally, in February, the city threw in the towel and allocated $5 million to outsource residence permit processing assistance. A memo to city council members earlier this month claimed she had resolved the single-family home impasse.
Johnson told me on Friday that while residency permits in December required 15 weeks, “we are now close to four to six weeks.”
He expects staff to turn next to business permit delays. “We’re going to attack this at all levels as we continue to work through to 2021,” he said.
Johnson talked a lot about the upgrades, alignments, and bandwidth needed to process apps more seamlessly. He also promised that an upcoming efficacy study will get to the bottom of things.
Alignment means making sure everyone understands the “why” behind the job, Johnson said. “Why are we doing this? Not just focusing on tasks. As for reports of a ‘culture of not being able’ among permissions staff, he believes conversations about urgency and l efficiency are starting to take root.
As COVID protocols gradually ease, Johnson expects a hybrid process to develop that still involves online submissions, but “that doesn’t mean customer service is lost.” You can’t replace the ability to talk to people in person.
When I floated the idea of outsourcing the whole operation to an outside party, Johnson said, “We are looking at all potential strategies. … There is a lot of work ahead.
He also pointed out that while the city staff “must perform at 100%”, the developers also have room to improve. “When information is submitted, it should be locked and loaded and doesn’t require a lot of redaction by staff that could potentially slow down the process,” he said.
The darkest thing I heard from Johnson was the timing of the change. “We shouldn’t be in this learning curve position in 2022. I’d like to see us get out of it even sooner than that.”
As a Dallas taxpayer, I’d like that to happen by, oh, next Monday. Especially since surrounding suburbs and major cities across the state seem to have found best practices — or at least better practices than the ones we use.
McMahon said the Real Estate Council meets regularly with its counterparts in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth and “by far Dallas is the worst when it comes to its permit issues.”
A city as resource-rich as Dallas needs to invest in technology and training to ensure deals are done efficiently. But I came away from my reporting feeling that the problems are so deep and entrenched that a real solution will also require a culture transformation within the permissions department.
Perhaps a good place to start is with City Manager TC Broadnax and Johnson spending a day alongside the people doing the work. Or perhaps they need to bring in an independent senior citizen from the city to oversee operations – and demand a level of accountability that seems to be lacking.
Even at its best, Dallas is in an uphill battle to compete with Plano, Frisco and Prosper for commercial and residential projects — and the tax dollars needed for the city and its residents to thrive.
We can’t afford the cost when malfunctions and delays in Dallas send these developers elsewhere.