Katherine Khashimova Long reports that badly needed housing projects are taking an average of 60% longer to permit than in 2014 ($), adding as much as seven months of pure bureaucracy.

The word “emergency” is used a lot in public discourse. Different parts of the political spectrum say we have them for the global climate, the national border, and for local households trying to find a home. But if the problem doesn’t warrant any change in existing priorities and procedures, it isn’t an emergency at all. By allowing this problem to get worse, Seattle leaders have let us know what they really think of the urgency of adding housing supply.

The article blames a botched software rollout and understaffing for the problem. Certainly, an administration where housing production was the #1 priority would have reverted to the old system and done whatever necessary to staff the office up.

But more than problems in executing the process, the problem is the process itself. On average, design review adds 89 days to the permitting process. What value are we getting out of this process? Has it made our housing stock more architecturally distinguished? Or has it enforced a sameness (excuse me, “protected neighborhood character”) by incentivizing architects to stick with what’s made it through review before?

29 Replies to “Seattle permitting is glacial”

  1. Or has it enforced a sameness (excuse me, “protected neighborhood character”) by incentivizing architects to stick with what’s made it through review before?

    High Dudgeon from Martin! Curmudgeonosity! This is a Red Letter Day.

    But seriously, it probably is a problem for exactly the reason you state. But I’d bet more is NIMBY lawsuit threats.

  2. What the article fails to mention is that the current design review process is one that was amended (more recently than 2014) for the express stated purpose of speeding up review and cutting developers’ expenses. Even at the time of the Land Use Code amendment legislation, the City’s own studies seemed to point out that increasing the City staff involved in design review would do more than any other change to speed up the production of new housing

  3. It makes me wonder if our Housing Levy money is misdirected. Wouldn’t it make some sense to be putting more money into expediting the process rather than just hand out dollars to others?

  4. If wait times were down, it would mean builders aren’t applying. Wait times increasing means more builders want to build. This is a good sign.

    1. One big difference with 2014: Seattle didn’t yet have a determined enemy in our country’s Federal government. Worst of all, in the judiciary.

      Can you please identify the changes in federal policy and/or action that have contributed to lengthening the delays in the permitting process? Or, alternatively, the federal court rulings that have made the process take longer (and where Trump’s judicial appointments appear to have tipped the scales)?This seems like an obvious non sequitur to me, but if it is not, I’d definitely like to know what they’re doing that’s contributing to the problem.

  5. What value are we getting out of the process? I would argue a few that should be important to the Seattle Transit Blog readers.
    I am an architect and a significant portion of my time has been permitting projects in Seattle. The article referenced from the Seattle Times reflects the well on the facts of the permitting situation. The software rollout was terrible as is likely influencing the increase in review times, but it seems like they are getting up to speed and SDCI internally reviews this and have indicated they are getting closer to their targets.

    SDCI is really short staffed and even if they have enough people the new folks are just not as experienced as the more veteran staff. I think anyone can relate to this at any job. One can hire all the people in the world, but the experience is what is needed.

    In parallel the industry is also short on labor and experience. Architects and Engineers need more people who know multifamily housing and contractors desperately need more people, particularly in the trades, to build these building.
    So what is the value of the permitting process? I’m assuming this is asking the question about design review, since the permit review and inspection process helps ensure our buildings are safe for people to be in and while it takes time it’s critical to get correct.

    The design review process helps protect bad development and ensure that we are building our structures to respond well to the site and work well to achieve a better urban fabric. We argue a lot on the blog for quality transit systems and smart planning and the design review process does this for buildings in the urban fabric and its eventual users. For example I just attended a meeting this week as a member of the community and questions like how does the building face the street, does the building address accessibility well, will the building feel safe to it’s occupants as primary drivers of the conversation. The community weighed in and some points were well received but everyone and will have a lasting impact. Also while I still had some concerns aesthetically for this project, the board thought it was good enough and approved it. So it’s not just a discussion on if the design looks good.

    I think what is always overlooked in this process is departure requests. A departure request is when the architect/developer requests approval to build something that does not conform to the zoning code. Almost every project I’ve seen go through design review has requested at least one departure request. The architect can argue that meeting the zoning code is not beneficial to the design and the board can approve this. This almost always helps save significant amount of money for a project and makes a better impact to city. I have an example where this allowed an additional unit on the property. What is the value of departure requests that is a key part of the design review process? Does it make up for the 89 days and additional “cost”?

    If one has a good project team, a good design will sail through the design review process. Also one can really reduce the time it takes with good project management and foresight.

    Sorry for the super long comment post, I will conclude that blaming the permitting process on the lack of affordable housing is a bit of a red herring. I know this is not shared by many in this community, but I feel like I am close enough to the front lines of the process to offer some perspective.

    1. Your comment is very informative; thank you.

      If there are so many departure requests, doesn’t that indicate problems with the zoning code?

      1. I suppose delays in permit approval also come from both ends. If those preparing and submitting are less experienced they will make more mistakes that require correction.

        Something I wonder about is how this compares to the rest of the area. Is Seattle doing a lot worse than Bellevue, etc?

      2. Christopher – The call for departures isn’t reflective of bad zoning code, it’s just the universal problem of code trying to be written in way that applies to ever condition. Every site is different and while the zoning code tries to address how to develop, there is always something nuanced or simply doesn’t work for the given site.

        For example the recent design review I attended requested a departure request to allow for the commercial space on the ground floor to be less than 30’ deep (from the storefront to the back wall perpendicular to the street). The departure request made sense given the lot was triangular and there really wasn’t an opportunity to make it that deep, so the design review committee allowed the departure.

        I’m not 100% sure but the 30’ requirement is likely due to ensure the eventual business that would go in the space has enough area to build out back of the house items (bathroom / storage) and allow for good street frontage, activating the street.

  6. This is short version from an ancient urban home builder.

    Quality from national codes not local. Dozens of permits to build a single house from SDCI, SDOT, SPU, City Light, PSE all unaccountable, unrestrained profit center monopolies. SPU takes longer to set a meter than it takes to build an entire house despite extreme connect costs.

    Construction permits don’t start with submittal. 4-8 months to set up average submittal. Weeks to months for submittal acceptance then 37 review stations with uncountable correction cycles (weeks-months each) regardless of competent submittals. Reviewers goal is maxed billable hours. Utility certs and property exams (PASVs) expire during permit processes. 90 day permit clock?

    Land use permits don’t start with accepted submittal. 2-4-6 years added. One square foot of seasonal damp area, mole hill slope or dying old alder tree and you won’t live long enough nor survive the cost. 120 day land use clock?

    Except owner occupied no residential bank funding (5-7%) including multi-units. We are forced to pay 12-14% on 9-12 month to private lenders while Obama brags of fixing the banks.

    Kill and don’t plant trees because they will be used to take your property and money. High buck survey, arborist, landscape planning and permit reviews. GMA created to trade rural trees for urban infill and tree scare is pure environment industry ripoff, see University of Maryland satellite tree study 1982-2016.

    Land shortage? Nope. 2014 buildable lands report King, Pierce, Snohomish and all their internal jurisdictions including Seattle demonstrated and repeatedly claimed enough existing urban buildable lands for 20 years projected growth. I saw how the land was counted and believe it’s true.

    GMA state law requires all jurisdictions to constantly provide enough urban lands for all housing classes, not just for the wealthy. Various permit efficient processes were also created to help compliance, see RCW 36.70 B 060 Consolidated Project Permit (all in one). Constantly refused via idiot court decision ‘SHALL’ means voluntary(?!!?)

    The only cause of housing failure is bureaucrat, environment and tax industries.

  7. As an Engineer, love the post. I don’t deal with Seattle, but the agencies I deal with always have “that guy.” Somebody who has a pet project that they want somebody else to pay for. Sometimes it is reasonable, often it is not. Often, the ask is a major public infrastructure upgrade that benefits the entire community, with one developer of one project expected to absorb the full cost. What then happens is those projects get downsized to the point that they meet a reduced requirement (less fire flow, so no water upgrades… fewer units, less traffic, no road improvements, etc.) Never mind that building density will mean fewer miles of water lines per ratepayer, and urban density means more bus trips and walking, and less traffic. “Rules are rules,” they say. Well, you reap what you sow. More low density suburban crap, and some “problematic” vacant lots sit vacant for decades.

  8. Do permitting fees cover the governmental agencies’ portion of the costs?
    Presumably they should, so they can scale their resources to meet demand.

    1. A friend in permitting at City Light told me that the fees go into the general fund rather than in hiring more staff.

    2. Some cities will hire consultants to do plan review and pass the direct costs on to the developer. I’ve done these. It’s a nice variation in my role. It also helps cities keep up with the workload during spikes in reviews. Seattle could do this, but apparently isn’t.

  9. There are dysfunctional dynamics with code and zoning people. I have run into it everyplace I have been involved with building. It extends into numerous sectors of building and safety. There is an almost criminal lack of concern with costs. Safety, especially regarding children falling out of windows. Inspections are arbitrarily delayed.

    I am totally in favor of codes and safety. I do wonder if it might be better to privatize the system, but have public employees spot checking quality.

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