A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

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It Has Now Taken the City the Entire Pandemic to Fix Its Building Permit Problem

'I'm generally not happy about anything,' says City Manager T.C. Broadnax, whose city saw a backlog of permits so large that it likely missed out on hundreds of new homes.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax is aware of the permitting delays that have prevented hundreds of single-family homes from being built in Dallas over the last twelve months. He says he is not happy about it. “I’m generally not happy about anything,” he told members of the Dallas City Council’s Economic Development Committee at a briefing Monday.

The city has, however, effectively cleared a backlog of unprocessed single-family building permits that mounted during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a memo shared with council members. The time it takes for staff to review those permits is improving. Per the memo from Dr. Eric A. Johnson, the city’s chief of economic development and neighborhood services:

The current estimated combined timeframe for conducting the first prescreen (1-2 business days) and first plan review of a single-family project is 4 weeks. That is an improvement from 15 weeks at the end of December 2020. Please recall that on October 30, 2020, there were 642 single family projects in the plan review stage. On March 31st, 2021, that number was down to 178. Of those, 159 projects were at 1-14 days (less than two weeks) and 19 projects were at 15-23 days.

“That process has, I think, leveled out, and will continue to improve,” Broadnax said. The process, in which city staffers vet and approve single-family residential building permits, appeared to break down after it was moved online in the early days of the pandemic last year. But problems with the system date back further. “It’s a culture and a systemic issue as it relates to how we go about doing business in Sustainable Development,” Broadnax said of communication breakdowns.

Those breakdowns have frustrated builders and city council members with the office charged with issuing these permits.

The city is making progress, the city manager said, just as neighboring cities did far earlier in the pandemic. (And they have benefited from the work that builders originally wanted to provide in Dallas, but couldn’t.) Third-party contractors were hired to help resolve the backlog in late January, according to the memo. The process for reviewing commercial building permits is taking about as long as it did prior to the pandemic, with no comparable backlog or delayed reviews. The problem seemed isolated in residential permits, but commercial processing could still stand to be faster as well. Plans are being reviewed, workflows evaluated, new software considered, staffing studied.

Several council members said, and Broadnax agreed, that the city’s approach to “customer service” could be better. Builders have complained that the city is not returning their calls. Broadnax told council members he’d heard of similar issues even outside the Sustainable Development and Construction Department. He said he has sometimes asked people to copy him on emails to make sure they get a response. “It shouldn’t take that to get somebody’s attention,” he said.

When a council member brought up a recent D Magazine piece calling on Broadnax—who we called “the most powerful man in Dallas”—to do something about all this, the city manager didn’t cop to reading it, but did appear to agree with the premise that he was responsible for fixing the permitting situation. “The people working to resolve [these] issues work for me,” he said, adding that “in many cases I may not have much to do with it, but it’s been on my radar.”

Broadnax said every city he’s worked in has had problems with its building permit process. In Dallas, the city is working on creating new standards “that are going to push us to be better.”

In other words, “stay tuned,” the city manager said. “We’re actively going to be bringing some things forward to the City Council that may show how we’re going to be doing things differently.”

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