City Manager T.C. Broadnax has until May 18 to produce a plan to fix Dallas’ broken permitting 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 being added to the city’s tax rolls. The city of Dallas has a much-publicized housing shortage, and builders can’t hammer us out of it largely because of one reason: they can’t get permits quickly.
Mayor Eric Johnson in February created the Working Group on Permitting, appointing Councilwoman Paula Blackmon and public policy consultant (and permitting expert) Macey Davis as co-chairs. Blackmon on Thursday sent a memo requesting that Broadnax and his team brief the City Council on a plan that “should include timelines, metrics, and feedback from impacted industries.” The briefing will happen May 18.
This is the most direct instruction to fix this crisis yet. Previous plans to fix the problem have leaned diagnostic. In October, the city’s former chief of economic development referred to the city’s process as “an autopsy.” “We’re looking at this thing from top to bottom,” Eric Anthony Johnson, who resigned in January, told the City Council.
May marks seven months since the city started prodding the corpse.
“We’re getting to the point where we have to either blow it all up or fix what we have,” Blackmon said. “It’s an archaic system we’ve bandaged and patched. It’s finally caught up with us.”
The city’s permitting office, headquartered at a squat building on Jefferson Boulevard called the Oak Cliff Municipal Center, has never been a picture of efficiency. But it was the devil developers knew. Before the pandemic, they’d line up before sunrise to get a meeting with city staff to go over their permits. It is important for developers and their contractors to be able to anticipate an appropriate timeline. Many say that’s been impossible since March 2020, and it isn’t all because of the pandemic.
The city was in the process of implementing a new online system when workers had to be sent home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The software was rolled out too early, and staff wasn’t adequately trained. The permitting backlog ballooned to over 900 projects in a queue. It took about a year for the city to clear it. Delays went from days to weeks to months.
Now two years later, it’s still taking the city an average of 42 days to process a permit for a single-family home. (That is an improvement from the same period in 2021, when it was taking an average of 113 days to do the same job.)
Phil Crone, the CEO of the Dallas Builders Association, says most other cities do the same work in half the time or less. “I hope that the city manager feels the same way that we do, that this is a now-or-never moment and that we’ve got to start moving forward,” Crone said. “We’re going to head into the abyss if we don’t have a coherent plan and something that’s workable here.”
Dallas doesn’t make it easy to approve permits. The city’s zoning is a patchwork quilt of loosely controlled chaos, consisting of over 1,000 planned development districts that allow developers to do different things depending on where they’re building. That mess isn’t easy for city staff to navigate.
Plus, Blackmon says, the software that manages permitting, ProjectDox, is not compatible with the city’s software that manages land use, called Posse. (The city is working to replace Posse as its land-management system, which it anticipates happening in May.)
The city manager has allocated money for three third-party companies to help staff review permits and is working on adding a fourth. On top of this, Dallas hasn’t had a chief building official since Philip Sykes retired, in March 2020. One of the primary duties of that position is to ensure permitting is running smoothly and efficiently. Blackmon notes that the city is “steadily” making progress in hiring for these positions, and is interviewing candidates for the top spot.
“It’s time that we stop sending out a memo here and going to this (council) committee and doing that, and actually get everybody in the room and start hammering out solutions,” Blackmon says. “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 fix the process. He has briefed the council’s Government Performance and Financial Management Committee once a month to keep council updated on his findings and how long it’s taking to push permits through. I have not encountered a person who has said an ill word about him or his work. But everyone agrees this problem has gone on too long.
“Where are we right now?” asked Crone, the builders association president, when I posed the same question to him. “The fact that you and I are still talking about this really speaks for itself in terms of how frustrating it’s been for us and continues to be. I hear every day from two or three builders who are, at 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, text messages, or calls every single day—including the weekend—from frustrated developers,” he said. “Unless I see drastic changes before budget season, I’m going to be prepared to try and take drastic action during budget season.”
That “drastic action” would be to shift more of the permitting operations to private contractors. West also echoed the desire of the builders to allow architects and engineers to self-certify their work, bypassing at least a portion of the permit approval process. They would put their licenses on the line in backing their projects.
West says he often has to involve assistant city managers to address complaints piecemeal. He praised the work they’re doing, but lambasted the process. “It should be a system that works without assistant city manager-level involvement during every single case,” he said.”
“In my opinion, this is the most important thing the city manager should be focusing on right now and I hope he’s doing so,” 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 off Peavy Road, not far from White Rock Lake. They’re all net-zero projects, the sort of homes that fall in line with the goals of the city’s climate action plan. They aren’t cheap—they’re listed for north of $800,000—but it’s adding housing stock in a city desperate for it.
He says he’s been waiting for a permit for 15 weeks to start building his third home. He says he can’t get a construction loan without a permit; in the meantime, he’s paying interest on a development loan he had to secure for the land. “It’s cost me over six figures,” he said. “It’s a quantifiable thing.”
I asked him what he planned to do after completing this project.
“Build somewhere else,” he said, laughing.