At a time when residential construction is booming across California, Long Beach residents are struggling with ever-rising home prices and a shortage of low- and moderate-income housing.

While some of those problems plague the state and nation as well, paralyzing permit approval delays at the city’s Building and Safety Bureau are also contributing to the problem, industry experts, builders and even city officials acknowledge.

“The city can’t manipulate hardwood lumber prices, but they can pull the lever on local regulatory infrastructure,” said Adam Fowler, director of research for Beacon Economics in Los Angeles. While acknowledging that Long Beach’s post-pandemic economic recovery is happening in many ways, Fowler added that “if jobs don’t have beds, then you’re artificially constraining any sort of growth.”

Diana Coronado, vice president of the Building Industry Association’s Los Angeles/Ventura chapter, is also unhappy with the permitting delays.

“Our membership has expressed concern with delays in the city’s building process,” she said. “Administrative delays should not stop critical housing from coming online, particularly during a housing crisis.”

Four councilmembers—Cindy Allen, Rex Richardson, Daryl Supernaw and Mary Zendejas—agree with Fowler and Coronado. They’ve proposed sweeping reforms for the building permit office that include software updates, new hiring priorities and even a “shot clock” with deadlines aimed at keeping city officials on track.

“As the city pursues a robust economic recovery, the ability to receive, approve, and execute building permits in a timely manner will have a significant impact on Long Beach’s ability to thrive as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” states a memo outlining their new “Long Beach BUILD Initiative,” which the councilmembers will propose at the June 15 council meeting.

A May 11 memo from Development Services Director Oscar Orci to City Manager Tom Modica stated that turnaround times for issuing even minor construction permits “have not met the City’s goals nor the needs or expectations of our customers.”

When asked to comment on the BUILD memo, Development Services spokesman Rick de la Torre sent a statement saying department officials recently began offering limited in-person service, are continuing to improve its permit processing system and look forward to discussing the proposals with the council.

The BUILD Initiative memo highlights a number of potential problems with permitting, which have been delaying developers and contractors from completing even minor home improvement jobs for hundreds of days. Many of the delays stem from a nearly 50% drop in full-time staffing levels at the permit center during the pandemic, forcing the city to use temporary employees and third-party contractors.

The delays, which have hurt local contractors and architects, aren’t happening in other Southern California cities.

“We work in several other cities and they’re just taking three weeks,” said Jonathan Glasgow, principal architect with the Long Beach firm Interstices Architecture. “It’s four to five months for the city of Long Beach.”

In addition to slowing the economic recovery, the BUILD Initiative memo said permitting delays are also hurting the city’s ability to combat homelessness. The initiative memo notes that one out of every 200 Long Beach residents is experiencing homelessness.

The inability to approve new housing in a timely manner may also be adding to the city’s worsening cost of living. A 2019 Smartasset report, which is cited in the BUILD Initiative memo, found that Long Beach was the third worst city in the nation in terms of affordable rent, with average rent rising by nearly 25% but median household incomes increasing by just 12%.

Permitting delays are also exposing the city to “significant legal liability” from its inability to meet state SB 330 mandates that residential, mixed-use and supportive housing developments come up for approval within 90 days of application and affordable housing projects get approved or rejected within 60 days of application, according to the BUILD Initiative memo.

“We are not a city that can afford to merely return to its pre-pandemic pace of housing construction,” states the BUILD Initiative memo.

The BUILD Initiative includes three recommendations: a review of hiring practices in hopes of getting the permit center back up to full staff, a report on possible ways to update the city’s permit application software and consideration of a “Development Shot Clock” to standardize approval times.

Failure to return the permit office to pre-pandemic staffing levels could “cripple our recovery plans” and keep the city from taking part in the federal American Jobs Plan, which is currently moving through Congress, the initiative memo noted.

Because the permit office was closed throughout the pandemic, all permit applications had to be conducted online, using email. The software used by the city, which hasn’t been updated since its introduction in 2008, is problematic for anyone trying to submit plans and files for approval.

“You don’t really know if they get something,” Glasgow said. “Sometimes there’s an automatic response, sometimes there’s not.”

As for the proposed shot clock, that could radically shorten the time needed to get a project appeal from the city. Texas instituted a regulatory shot clock for most types of land development in 2019, the BUILD Initiative memo notes, granting automatic approval to applications that haven’t been approved or rejected within 30 days, according to the BUILD memo.

The council will discuss the BUILD Initiative at its June 15 meeting.

“We need to go back and fix the problem,” Councilman Richardson said. “We’re not in good times, and we need to fix this to get back in good times.”

City official admits building permit delays are failing customers

Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.