We’ve written about the city of Dallas’ building permit debacle ad nauseum, and if it had not wreaked havoc on homeowners, builders, architects, and developers—not to mention the hundreds of millions dollars the city couldn’t add to its tax base—I’d let it go. Really, I’d rather talk about just about anything else. But the failure of Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax to rectify the permit problem in a timely manner suggests a condition at City Hall, rather than a single problem to be fixed. And that merits a conversation.
The city has had this problem for about a year now. In March of 2020, the city staffers in charge of vetting single-family residential permits went home. The backlog began building. The city blamed the issue on poor technology that couldn’t handle the demands of a world that had suddenly been forced online. In-person meetings that would typically happen at the Oak Cliff Municipal Center vanished. According to the department of Sustainable Development and Construction, what once took two days was taking two months. And these delays have continued for the better part of a year.
The city manager is a good man. A smart man. Respected. And Broadnax is the only individual in the universe with the power and authority to fix our city’s governing structure. For that reason, I lay the responsibility for this mess at his feet. City council members come and go. Mayors come and go. But city managers, while not forever, certainly stay longer and have more power. It is on Broadnax to ensure the success of basic operations that are critical to the city’s development. The building permit debacle is a mere snapshot of Dallas’ ongoing issues.
Pushing against slow-moving bureaucracy is risky business, to be sure. There are recent examples. Former Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles implemented brilliant change strategies during his dramatic tenure. Granted, he made missteps. Who among us hasn’t? But he was run out of town because he disrupted the decades of dysfunction with new ways of measuring success, empowering staff, and rewarding excellence. When Michael Hinojosa returned to the post, he took Miles’ policies and ran with them. Today DISD is one of the most innovative and respected urban school districts in the U.S. Mike Miles deserves credit. He did the difficult thing: he looked at operations and fought against the inertia of the repeated poor outcomes plaguing the district, to hell with what people said about him.
I have interviewed residential builders, architects, and developers. They are at once furious and in a state of disbelief that the city employed a process that for the better part of 2020 took more than eight to 10 weeks to get a permit to build in Dallas. For months, it’s been the talk of the town. It has occupied hours of council briefings.
Council members Chad West, David Blewett, Tennell Atkins, and Paula Blackmon have been working tirelessly to solve the issue. City staff leadership has pushed for change but fingers point every which way when it comes to answering the key question: who is holding staff accountable? Last month, when it was clear the building department was in over its head, the city allocated $5 million to outsource processing permits to three different vendors over the next two years. Its goal is to eliminate the backlog by the end of the month, which is tomorrow. But this sounds like a MASH unit.
We will know on Friday where the permit backlog stands. Broadnax plans to update the City Council in a memo. Staff will brief the Economic Development Committee on Monday, and the city declined to release any detail about the backlog or the current average processing time for a building permit ahead of Friday’s memo packet. We hope for good news.
Dallas is a fast-paced city of entrepreneurs, visionaries, innovators, and creatives. City Hall must be equal to the talent engine that makes Dallas, Dallas. After the third-party contractors work through the current backlog, processes must be installed to prevent this from ever happening again. Dallas must be better than its neighbors; it must be a place people want to do business, particularly when facing a shortage of housing stock.
Finally, Broadnax must demand accountability. It will be painful. He will not be popular and the kvetching will be non-stop. But I’ll bet the mayor and the council will support his effort. And if not, the electorate will vote in people who will.