Dawn Of A New Era For S.F.’s Embattled Building Department?
The coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the only ailment that plagued San Francisco last year. Corruption scandals involving heads of multiple city agencies and business leaders led to a slew of investigations and resignations and caused considerable upheaval among affected departments, including the Department of Building Inspection, which lost its director due to a corruption investigation.
Even prior to the debacle, years of abuses of San Francisco’s building permitting system have tainted the reputation of DBI and the city’s business climate more generally and led to an unfair playing field for contractors, public safety concerns and lost business opportunities.
“People know that it’s so difficult, so complicated and so arbitrary to get a DBI permit in San Francisco,” S.F. Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Director Jay Cheng said. “Whether you’re trying to operate a storefront or repair a roof or get an awning — they know that this is an incredible time suck and an incredible amount of money and so they don’t do it. They don’t open their storefront here and don’t operate their building here. So we’ve driven businesses away.”
In the wake of shifts in how DBI conducts business, including some triggered by legislation from the Board of Supervisors, an improved climate of transparency and justice may be in progress. However, the timing of last year’s corruption wave was less than ideal as the coronavirus pandemic’s onset hampered DBI’s in-person permitting services with some staff having to work remotely. This led to more frustrations directed at the department from the construction industry.
Among other changes, a policy initiated by DBI three years ago to root out fraud in its building permitting process is on track to be codified into law. On March 1, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee will revisit amendments made to legislation introduced by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen in November designed to track violations of the city’s building code.
If a project, individual or entity has three egregious violations in an 18-month period, they would be placed on an Expanded Compliance Control List. Some violations of concern include misrepresented project site conditions, structural or demolition work without or outside the scope of a permit, and unpermitted work that endangers public safety.
Additionally, four out of DBI’s five executive positions have been filled by people new to the executive team, including Assistant Director Christine Gasparac. Although the department still lacks a director with the post currently filled by interim Director Patrick O’Riordan, Gasparac, who joined the department in April, considers the department to be operating in a completely new atmosphere than in the past.
"It's not the same DBI that it was a year ago,” Gasparac said.
Beyond the policy and legislative changes, the office of the city administrator spearheaded a move to house 14 permitting departments, including DBI and [the] Planning [Department] under one roof at 49 South Van Ness Ave. in August. The intention was to make the process of getting permits less complicated for the public by having a single location where people can go for information. The city administrator's office also hoped that having the departments in proximity will open up lines of communication, as the lack thereof has been blamed in part for abuses of the system and the time-consuming process. Yet problems seem to have followed the departments to the new center, as a permit expeditor, frustrated with the process, threatened suicide last September, as reported by Mission Local.
“You’ll see a lot of cases where Planning will tell a business owner you need to get an additional permit from DBI and the business owner will go to DBI, wait in line, wait throughout the process and then a couple months later they hear from DBI that you don’t need that permit, instead you need this third permit from Planning,” Cheng said.
Another barrier is the lack of a universal digital tracking system among city departments. Debra Walker, who served on the Building Inspection Commission from 2001 to 2020, said that the lack of a universal digitized system shared between departments results in DBI, Planning and the assessor’s office sometimes having inconsistent information about a particular property, leaving the system open to manipulation.
“We are currently exploring adopting a new technology that would span multiple departments, but we're just in the very early days of talking about what that looks like,” Gasparac said. “We have initiated that conversation with our partners at Planning. A lot of our work is connected. We take in a permit application, a lot of times it has to go to Planning for review, and so being on a shared integrated platform would just help streamline the process.”
Adding to the issues, DBI’s internal permitting system isn’t fully digitized yet and still relies on paper for some functions, though efforts to upgrade the system are underway, according to Gasparac. Last year the department attempted to convert all permits to its Electronic Plan Review system, which handles more complex projects, but the move resulted in the system crashing due to overloaded volume. Gasparac said a new city agency called Digital Services is helping DBI effectively integrate its permit tracking system with EPR.
“At the root of it is keeping everything separate and just sort of refusing to look at infrastructure upgrades and reform, has really delayed dealing with this issue,” Walker said. “The answer really is moving forward with a secure, online permit and tracking system that engages every department, every person who deals with the inventory of our land and buildings in San Francisco.”
While it may be surprising that a city like S.F. would struggle with technological upgrades, Walker said change has been slow because certain bad actors and those who can pay them benefit from the broken system. However, she expressed optimism that the new leadership and legislation are signals of positive change.
Cheng said that legislation to curb fraud, as well as Prop H approved by voters in November requiring an expedited permitting process for small businesses, is a step in the right direction, but it only scratches the surface in the absence of a fully digitized tracking system.
The anti-fraud legislation relies on DBI staff to maintain the compliance list, which hasn’t worked well in the past, District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar said at the Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting on Feb. 22. She said that mandatory public disclosure of entities added to the list should be considered. District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who at the meeting called past fraudulent behavior “an embarrassment to San Francisco and an embarrassment to the Building Department,” recommended that the added measure only be taken if there is future evidence that staff is giving preferential treatment.
Members of the public made comments expressing concern about some elements of the legislation. Although the legislation targets those who intentionally try to take advantage of the system versus those who are genuinely ignorant of the rules, there is worry that some in the construction industry could be punished merely for being associated with bad actors. Some believe that DBI may be ill-equipped to execute the compliance directives since it is still without a permanent director and faces staffing challenges amid the pandemic.
One person commented that the legislation adds risk for contractors doing business that could result in higher building costs. Another said that the law is “just adding another layer of dysfunction and not addressing the root cause.”
Apart from the legislation, DBI has instituted other quality control measures for situations where compliance scrutiny is warranted. First, it requires all permit applications to undergo a secondary review by a senior staff member. Site inspections are also required prior to permits being issued. Finally, a senior inspector is required to perform inspections and respond to complaints about any projects in question.
It is unclear how effectively these added measures are being implemented given the lack of a permanent director and some staff still working remotely. However, there is some indication of improvement more generally. At a Building Inspection Commission meeting on Feb. 17, Gasparac spoke of plans to hire four more plan checkers.
In January, DBI issued 85% of the total number of permits it had issued pre-pandemic in January 2020, according to Gasparac, which she said is promising given the continued limits to in-person interactions. Of the over 4,000 permits DBI issued last month, 65% were issued electronically, she said.
"We've been very honest about the challenges that we face and the delays with processing permits, but we have made huge improvements,” Gasparac said. “The pandemic was brutal for DBI beyond the change in leadership. It was a system that was developed to be face-to-face.”