How California’s Cities Strangle the Permit Process

If cities don’t start seeing the forest for the trees, our business landscape—if it hasn’t already—will irretrievably change.

By John E. McNellis, Principal at McNellis Partners, for WOLF STREET:

California’s cities want to do the right thing. They’ve been telling us all the right things since the Covid mess began: promising to speed building permits for struggling landlords and tenants, to slash red tape, to help small businesses—particularly retail—through to the other side. But somewhere between our public employees’ enthusiastic adoption of remote working and city Zoom calls that resemble a high school yearbook, that right thing is proving elusive.

Like they say in Jersey, I know a guy. This guy has a small apartment portfolio in San Francisco. He wants to convert some of his garages into studios; that is, he wants to create accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Because a garage-turned studio is by definition lower income housing, the state of California has mandated that all cities swiftly approve ADUs to help with our housing crisis. The approvals for his conversions should have been a piece of cake.

They weren’t. This guy applied to the San Francisco Planning Department for permits more than a year ago. The approval process flat-lined, leaving his ADUs still hung up today. He said, “We were even told the permit was ready to be issued for one, we paid the invoice, went to pick it up at Planning, only to hear, ‘It isn’t ready yet’. Weeks later and we have no idea why we can’t get this permit.”

San Francisco may be unique in many ways, but not in this. I recounted this story to a group of young developers on yet another yearbook Zoom call. They jumped on it like an onside kick, clamoring to top it with their own tales of woe.

A Redwood City developer said he submitted plans to renovate a single apartment in the fall of 2019. After some back and forth, he picked up his permit. Some months later—in the midst of the pandemic—he wanted to do the identical work to an identical apartment next door to the first. He submitted the previously approved plans; three months later he received a four page single-spaced letter of new comments from the city. It took him six months to finally get the second permit.

This builder said, “The city’s building inspector confided, ‘I don’t know why anyone would ever pull a permit for an apartment remodel; the cities make it so difficult.”

In the business of remodeling and flipping rundown houses, another new developer lamented that he’s been waiting for over a year for Berkeley to approve his modest renovation plans.

A third, a manager with a large non-profit builder, said that even their very low income apartment projects—those at the top of the public approval pile—are taking twice as long for comments.

A San Jose developer blamed his massive delays and fly-specking comments—he called them “pointless and stupid”—on the fact that many cities now pay outside consultants on an hourly basis to do their plan checking. According to him, these consultants are interpreting building codes in the most rigid, overly restrictive manner possible, both to prove their mettle and double their fees.

When asked what he does to fight back, he said. “I call 3-4 times a day, I write 3-4 emails a day, I make myself such a total pest that they finally give in just to get rid of me.”

Our firm has no immunity from this governmental indifference. We signed a lease on a fairly large retail space that had been vacant since the beginning of the Great Shut-Down. The new tenant was willing to take the space as-is, but needed to replace a backdoor with a wider, roll-up door to bring in merchandise. This scant work should have been approved over the counter.

Instead, after a couple months, the city’s external checker said the door needed further study. With this excuse, the tenant exercised its termination right, and we lost a substantial lease.

At a time when cities should be throwing lifelines to drowning tenants and landlords, too many are tossing out sea anchors. As with San Francisco, most aren’t saying no; they’re either not responding—if you’re into masochism, try getting a return call from a planner—or insisting they need more information or further studies or tighter compliance with their byzantine codes.

If cities don’t start seeing the forest for the trees, our business landscape—if it hasn’t already—will irretrievably change. By John E. McNellis, author of Making it in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.

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  105 comments for “How California’s Cities Strangle the Permit Process

  1. shandy says:

    Cant right off the top undercover the situation.
    Digging deeper I lack what I misunderstood?
    Some municipalities are out of touch with the real life of their inhabitants.

    • Joe Saba says:

      all municipalities are instituting INTERNATIONAL CODES on yearly basis
      MAKING IT VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO GET PERMITS without lots of GRAFT and BRIBES
      in Tucson, if you have 3 or more units(rentals) then ONLY COMMERCIAL CONTRACTORS can perform work
      technically even change faucet requires permit – tell tenant that and they go nuts
      yet LARGE COMPLEXES continually skirt the law by performing their own maintenance

  2. timbers says:

    All things being equal, the simplest solution is the best. Forget the complicated permit process and cut to the heart of the matter.

    California should do the opposite of what London does – impose a 100% on the rich.

    They would leave, and the working folk of California would see their lives improved fantastically.

    • MCH says:

      yeah? you think so? where is all the tax revenue for the state going to come from?

      Once the high earners pick up their ball and leaves, and the companies can’t attract any talent by paying higher wages cause the state takes good parts of it, they pull up stakes… and what would you have?

      Some f***ing worker’s paradise… let me know how that works out.

      • James I Newman says:

        Ha,ha,ha. When was the last time any of the well-heeled in San Francisco or indeed, the nation, paid their fair share of taxes. How’s that working for you?

        • cas127 says:

          At least on the books CA has high state income tax rates…if you are going to make allegations…provide specifics.

          As a general rule, the political class games democracy by imposing disproportionate tax rates on a minority of voters/taxpayers.

          If the same rates were applied uniformly, the political class know they would have an immediate tax rebellion on their hands.

          But by segregating high tax payers (a minority), gvt benefit recipients (another minority), and the indifferented middle (lowish tax, low to no gvt benefits) the political class skims off the top and plays faction off against faction.

        • Drivetimer says:

          In 1960 when JFK was elected the top IRS bracket was 91% for income over $400,000. After Kennedy’s tax cut, by 1980 when Reagan was elected the top bracket was 70% for income over $215,400.

        • Javert Chip says:

          James I Newman

          Well, ha ha ha right back to you. Something like a few thousand (5,000?) high-income CA taxpayers pay 50% of all CA income tax collected.

          I can tell you’re a deeper thinker about all this than I am, so I’d be interested in seeing your definition of “fare share” of taxes. I’d appreciate having it boiled down to a simple statement like the following example:

          o The “top x%” of CA income earners, who earn Y% of all CA income, should pay Z% of all CA income tax collected.

          Pretty simple request.

        • Nacho Libre says:

          Kennedy was smart and so was Reagan. Unlike the scammer from Vermont with 3 houses.

          JFK made the taxes fairer – cut the top rate to 70%, added standard deduction. Reagan did similar.

          Result was increased tax revenue – both cases.

        • MCH says:

          Let me use my Col. Jessup voice for this one.

          Son,

          Fair is a relative term. If you look at the pure percentages, 39% of $1M, vs 20% of $80K, or may be <10% of $40K, which do you think is fair?

          I'd think a flat 25% is fair. You probably think a progressive (cause that sounds so much better than regressive) tax of 80% on anyone making over $5M a year is fair.

          What do you think is going to happen to those making over $5M if you start imposing that kind of taxes on them. I mean, even a dumbass like Cuomo understood what would happen if the richest people in NYC pulled out of the state when you start increasing their rates.

          Did you even take basic math in grade school? You know, contrary to what the Gates Foundation likes to push out, math isn't actually r*****. In the real world, 2+3 still equals to 5.

        • Mike P says:

          Their “fair” share ? And who determines what is fair? You?

          The truth is that the top 10% pay something like 40% or ALL taxes.

    • Candyman says:

      Stop. Just stop. Your hatred of people with money is eating away at your intellect.

    • Steven says:

      The simplest solution to the permit parasites?

      Carefully adhering to safety codes, such as electrical and plumbing, regulations which are there to protect life and limb, hire skilled workmen as “repairmen” or “handymen” to do the work and pay them in cash at the end of each day.

      Buy your own materials to get around the “Any project over X $ requires a permit.”

      I came to this conclusion after watching an old guy at the building department trying to get a permit to repair a rotted railing on his deck.
      “What design professional made these drawings?” barked the bitch behind the counter.
      “I did” replied the old guy.
      “You’ll have to get a licensed professional’s stamp on these plans, make 4 copies, submit the work for plan check, filing, then get your permit before you can do any work.”
      “I was in the Seabees, Naval engineering…”
      “Doesn’t matter.”

      Saw the guy at Starbucks a week or so later and commiserated.
      “I just did it without a permit and I’m going to do the same with my new bathroom.”

  3. MonkeyBusiness says:

    California needs a third party. Heck, the nation needs one.

    • two beers says:

      Even a second party would be an improvement.

      • Ensign_Nemo says:

        For those who are not US citizens, he’s referring to the system in California where the top two candidates in the spring primary elections run against each other in the fall final elections. This quite often results in one Democrat running against another Democrat, which then virtually guarantees that a Democrat will win that seat. For some odd reason, this idea is very popular with Democratic politicos.

        In know that Wolf dislikes links in these posts, but this one is to the CA government website, so hopefully it will not be removed:

        https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/primary-elections-california

        • MCH says:

          Ok, let’s be honest, CA demographics have shifted to a point where no Dumbo has a serious chance of getting anywhere into the head of state government, much less a major city, San Diego likely being the only exception.

          The top 2 system is only a rubber stamp for the power structure that was solidified in place 20 years ago.

        • Current gov got there through SF mayors race, while he was losing to the Green candidate, who was championing the gay marriage issue. DNC threw a bunch of money behind GN and he coopted his opponents message, and here we are. When they had the last recall, there was a televised debate, and afterwards the analysts said, Peter Camejo won this debate, BUT, he will never be governor, because is a Green party candidate. Then we got Arnie. Third parties can move the platform, they just aren’t allowed near the levers of power (BS for instance). Now it is Biden who is pushing grass root zoning reforms, which would release a huge pentup supply in Ca RE. That might be a mistake, since supply really does exceed demand when the market is functioning properly. However when the hitech revolution comes to housing perhaps the economy can absorb the demand for new (hedonically enhanced) homes. Let Wolf chew on that.

      • Jdog says:

        So long as corporations are able to buy whomever gets in, it does not matter what party they are from, they all serve the same master. And that master is not the American people.

    • MCH says:

      No, CA doesn’t need a third party, it just needs to get rid of the two… eh, excuse me, the one it has currently in power. Start with Newsom, then Garcetti, then Breed, and so on down the line. And also, all of their appointees, and the life long party hacks…. and don’t replace them with the likes of… uh… uh… sorry, don’t know any actual Dumbos in this state any more.

      This has always been a problem with single party rule, whether it’s dumbos or jackasses, it doesn’t matter the jurisdiction, always some form of idiocy. Ok, to be fair, I don’t know what it’s like in the places where the dumbos reign supreme since all my life, I’ve lived in places where the jackasses were the powers to be. It’s funny, in the 90s, the country wasn’t like Hawaii, all bifurcated, sliced and diced up for the politicians, now, it’s all like Hawaii with a few exceptions here and there were there is a pretense for struggle of power.

      The simple truth is though, we’ll still carry on all things considered. I mean, people live in places like Iraq, or Syria, or some of the other spots in the world where there is constant turmoil and such, and they do what they have to, to survive. As long as the people in the US keep the same mentality, ultimately they’ll be fine.

      By the way, I’m not saying don’t milk the system, if you can, you definitely should, cause the guy next to you is taking every advantage he gets.

      • VintageVNvet says:

        Here’s a relevant anecdote for ya mch re ”delta” how dumbos do, or at least did the building dept thingy:
        Last new house I built in CA, very liberal small city, it took 6 months and $22,000.00 to get the permit after submitting plans signed and sealed by registered structural engineer and architect,,, and this was after the former house on the site was destroyed by the Loma Prieta quake, so everyone paying mouth service to the emergency!!
        Next new house, conservative small city in SWFL, took the plans to the building dept, they called with the review ready the NEXT DAY,,, had to fix my home drawn plans with three items,,, they stamped the plans over the counter the day I brought them in, I gave them a check for $1800.00, and went to work; total of two weeks because of the slow drafter (me)…
        Friends in same area of CA tell me it’s much much worse these days, with one now 3 years into the permitting process, and approximately $300,000.00 in ‘ GUV MINT ”fees” and professional fees, and no permit in hand yet.
        A client in SF was trying to do a really nice rehab/improvement project, but finally gave up after learning it was likely to be at least a couple of years to get the permit. Didn’t blame her one bit…

      • Uncle Salty says:

        Abolish the vote. Obliterate all political cartels. As a citizen of the United States, you will receive a summons to serve your county for one term only. Combat veterans who laid their lives on the line for the country, are given highest priority. Lawyers and realtors are ineligible to serve.

        • MonkeyBusiness says:

          Most of our combat veterans after WWII died for corporations, not our country. How can you trust the country to the people who went to Iraq under false pretenses?

        • Uncle Salty says:

          An order from the COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF is not under false pretenses, I can assure you.

        • MonkeyBusiness says:

          No doubt the Nazis were just following orders too. Heck, that’s the problem with soldiers throughout history. They only know how to take orders … blindly.

        • Uncle Salty says:

          And if the allied forces hadn’t blindly followed orders, you’d still be your daddy’s little wet dream, you effn POS lawyer. Don’t forget to wear a flower in your hair.

    • JimT in Canada says:

      We have had a 3rd party – left-leaning, overtly socialist – here in Canada for most of my life. It pulls votes away from the more center-left Liberals and splits the vote, so that the conservatives sometimes get a turn at power, even though the majority voted ABC – Anything But Conservative.

  4. Paulo says:

    What’s the old saying, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to beg for permission.”

    What are people thinking? Just do it as long as the mods aren’t electrical or structural. Or, a new build….something like that. Plus, just keep the quality so that the Building Code is met.

    I’ve been a carpenter for 40 years. The only permits I pull for myself are electrical so my insurance stays valid. My son pulls the permits (contractor certification) and the inspector doesn’t even come up. I’ve renovated 3 of my own houses and never pulled a permit and have done many for others. As long as you stay in the same footprint, follow code, and do quality work no one really cares. Additions? If they are small no one cares.

    Years ago my son in law was going to build a new shop in his backyard. I told him that whatever you do, do not pull a city permit. He made the mistake of doing so and when he recounted what the building inspector was requiring I told him his entire budget was spoken for in just the foundation. He cancelled the permit and just modified what he had. No one came by to check. My son just built a basement suite in a new house he purchased. (Small city with inspection regime). He rents out the upstairs and lives in the suite when he is on his two week break (2 on 2 off shift). New electrical service, split panels, split and metered gas feeds, etc. No one checks or cares. The suite doesn’t exist. Son in law is starting an addition this Monday and a kitchen reno. I asked him if he was pulling a permit and he just laughed. He is hiring trades and doing it all off the books.

    Obviously owners cannot do unsafe modifications or make foolish changes to their building. Plus, people who turn a residential property into a multi family dwelling are asking for angry neighbours to report them, but there are ways to proceed under the radar.

    I did get found out by the tax assessor, though. They come around every five years for a looksee. The first 5 year period the assessor came around and damned if I didn’t know him? He just shot the breeze with me for while and left everything the same. 5 more years went by and a new inspector came by and the jig was up. I told her I just finished. It was pretty funny, actually.

    If a law is unjust or stupid it will be flouted. People make phony passengers for the HOV lane commute. People grew a few pot plants on the sly. Drivers travel a few over the speed limit. Owners swap doors and do maint renos on their properties. The city needs housing. I would think converting a garage would be easy enough to do…..provided the owner gets along with the neighbours.

    • Thanks for the insight. That’s what I thought. I bought a house once that had an addition without a permit. The previous owner got a mortgage for the house without a problem around 2005. Ownership changed again when I bought the house. The house goes through the sale process and everyone is aware of the unpermitted addition, but nobody cares.

      • VintageVNvet says:

        Depends on location OI and P:
        Some locations I have worked in have required tearing off drywall or paneling to inspect quality of structural work when the bank finds out that there is an unpermitted addition.
        So, likely not a problem if no bank financing, but could be a major head ache if bank or municipality requires inspections later.

        • Paulo says:

          I always take pictures at every stage of the building project, and save them. I ensure they meet the BC building code. Although, I do use tar paper (60 minute) instead of Tyvek wrap as I want my walls to breathe and emit water vapour. Old timers like myself still use tar paper and roofing felt underlay. I think the new wraps are terrible as they promote ‘condo disease’. I also NEVER ever use OSB for sheathing or roofing. I use 1/2″ fir sheathing and 5/8 T&G fir sub floor. Never had a problem with old style sheathing, but my carpenter older brother had to do a roof tear off and replace the bottom 2′ of his OSB roof.

          It is more expensive, but you get what you pay for.

      • They call that “Grandfathered in”. I was going to buy my neighbors house after his mother died. We both agreed it was a teardown. I told him he should market it first, and sure enough some flippers got it, threw some stucco over the whole thing, (cracks in the cinder block you could put your hand through) wrapped in a leantoo addition that was not permitted. and doubled the sale price 2X over what I offered. Didn’t touch the ancient septic, or bother to bring the water meter on the property (1/4 mile away, water for the house comes through an exposed PVC pipe along an unused easement.) Not sure what makes me more angry, the flippers or the people who bought this shack for 1/2M with obvious problems, or the city who signed off. They did manage to boost the assesed value so alls well that ends well.

        • Joe Saba says:

          I just had neighbor turn me in for doing small add-on(actually rebuilding add-on that was there)
          now I have to get permit – summer so I’m on vacay til sept

          at least I don’t care as I’ll now add cost into RENT INCREASE FOR REST OF UNITS – I’ll have my investment back in 1 year

    • Kent says:

      As someone who works for a city government, the key is in structural changes. At least in Florida where I work, structural changes leave the standard review process into a process that includes engineering. Engineers are expensive, so very few are hired. My city has just one, while there are about 15 regular reviewers. When the one engineer takes a two week vacation, all work comes to a halt.

    • David Hall says:

      One county does not require a building permit to renovate the bathroom in a manufactured home. A large city required a building permit before painting a house.

      I checked the Better Business Bureau rating of a flooring contractor. I had problems when a product they installed failed under warranty. I kept after them to fix it until the job was done. Knowing they had an A+ rating helped me keep after them. One irresponsible person there is no longer working for them.

    • Javert Chip says:

      Paulo

      You plainly do to understand the current intent of the permit system.

      Rent seekers (bureaucrats controlling a process choke-point, not landlords) want 2, maybe 3 things from the permit process:

      o Personal power
      o Money
      o Opportunity to earn “side income” (AKA: bribes)

      You will undoubtedly notice that “compliance with ever-evolving safety codes” is not a top priority.

    • Candyman says:

      Interesting how you comment how you and your son are so prosperous. How smart you work , how above us you are, trying to be humble. Telling us the rich should pay a fair share….now you tell me you cheat, lie and subvert your system. Not your fair share.

  5. The Man says:

    I don’t take crap from anyone. I vote with my feet and everything goes to way I want. I go where I’m treated best! F-everyone that gets in the way.

  6. Jon says:

    I come from 3rd world country and I am here in California for last 20 years
    I totally understand and support the ADU concept for affordable housing but it definitely makes coastal CA looks like 3rd world country
    This is not the America I saw in movies when I was in my native countries.

    • Nacho Libre says:

      “third world countries” have better highways, airports, metros. Leaps and bounds of progress.

      USA still looks like it’s in a 1970s movie. Population is more ignorant, dumber and fatter too.

    • Felix_47 says:

      I will second you on that opinion. I am in Pomona, which is not exactly like Atherton. Most everyone has an illegal ADU meaning six people living in the garage. Two bedroom houses with six or seven cars parked on the lawn and driveway. Trash all over. The City can’t do anything because the political will is not there because many of the voters own the garages. The reality is that high population density makes life in Pomona and Mexico City very similar. American employers, to include quite a few homeowners in upscale areas, wealthy attorneys and professionals who need household help, labor contractors who supply labor to homebuilders are enjoying first world profits and conditions on the backs of third world labor. Of course those benefitting are not aware that each worker they are hiring at low wages has two or three or more children who are in school costing the taxpayers in the US 30,000 per capita, and every other resident in our area is MediCal eligible at 11,000 per capita. If we want to run a nation this way we really need to get rid of birth citizenship and just bring in the workers and admit we are not a nation of equals but rather a parasitic social construct more like India or Pakistan or Zimbabwe. Towns like Pomona, South Gate, Fontana, Victorville, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Mexico City, Harare, Cleveland, Minneapolis are the models for the future of the US. Over time every system degrades to the lowest common denominator.

      • Gl says:

        Isn’t this exactly what the majority voted for and we are seeing? I don’t understand how this is going horribly wrong.

    • Guest says:

      ADUs are really just a way for people to speculate more on property (look, there’s another small house here, pay up!) and it doesn’t really solve housing issues if each one is just housing 2 people comfortably. So what, 30,000 or whatever are still coming in yearly. And not everyone builds an ADU because in certain places, the cost can be half their current main residence depending on scope and size. New foundation, structural, plumbing, water, gas, etc. You can build it cheap but it’s not like a $800 garden shed cheap, it’s a smaller house.

  7. The Bob who cried Wolf says:

    The San Diego city council made a mockery of the ADU laws at the end of last year. Basically, if you know how to read the codes and go along with designating one after another low income there is no upper limit as to how many you can cram into one lot. No more setbacks, no more floor area ratios, no parking, very easy to build a low income project now. The city is flooded with plans waiting for approval. San Diego is about to turn into a shit hole unless this policy gets reversed. Keep an eye on the news as folks are catching on fast, like a brushfire. Best part is it’s blue voters who voted for blue pols who approved this mess and now the blue folks don’t want it. This is what the state is pushing for and San Diego beat them to it.

    • IanCad says:

      Are the insane CA Fire Sprinkler requirements not applicable to ADU’s or remodels?

      • The Bob who cried Wolf says:

        If the existing house isn’t sprinklered the ADU’s won’t be sprinklered

  8. Petunia says:

    John,

    Maybe it’s time for the RE industry in your area to fight the good fight. Raise money to vote them out, out them publicly, and eliminate the craziness.

    Post a sign on every property they don’t permit for renovation showing the public why they are losing businesses and housing units. Don’t forget to name names and update the number of days/weeks/months/years it is taking. Invite the media to take notice, post pictures online on social media.

    • Petunia says:

      P.S.

      I lived in rural Pennsylvania where the only building code was a national standard that builders adhered to just so they could say houses were built to the code. These homes were fine, cheap, and sturdy. You could always pay more to do more but you didn’t have to.

  9. tfourier says:

    Hey John, I see you guys are down in Palo Alto so not sure just how much you know how things work in SF.

    San Francisco has been a Pay To Play city since, well, at least 1847. So for small stuff you ignore the city, for bigger stuff you hire a “consultant” with the right political connections to make things happen.

    Thats the back story to current rolling bribery and corruption scandal in City Hall. Only the small fry so far. The fact that the mid level guys are willing to go to jail rather than turn and provide evidence against Mr Big tells you just how much of a Contact Sport politics is in SF. Its not quite Chicago but Mr Big has friends and “business associates” who do follow Chicago Rules if need be.

    So it’s just the old story. Money applied in the right place at the right time makes things happen. A San Francisco tradition.

    • MarMar says:

      Perhaps the author can share with us how much is just plain corruption.

      I’m sure you’d get your permits faster in San Francisco if you took Willie Brown to lunch.

  10. Tom Stone says:

    Here in Sonoma County the result has been a tremendous amount of unpermitted work of uneven quality.
    Five of the six homes on my morning walk that have had major work done did so without permits.
    Only one out of the six has had obviously sub par work done, but it’s definitely something to pay attention to if you are a buyer.
    Don’t skip inspections!.

    • VintageVNvet says:

      Your comment reminded me of the last new house I built TS, and it also goes to the first comment from P above:
      Many places in ”flyover” have NO building code,,, and if you want to live ”off the grid” no codes at all.
      For the last one, we wanted electricity, so had to install a septic system per county regulations. The septic permit from the county health dept. was $50.00, and that fee included the inspector watching every minute of the installation AND doing the ”perc” test.
      The electrical permit from the power company was $75.00, and included inspections of the temporary power pole installation, the ”rough in” inspection of the house and panel and meter base, and the final. The electrical inspector was a state employee covering 5 counties, and came the first time at 2200 to check the power pole.
      So, there ARE many places where the local guv mints do their best to facilitate new homes,,, and many still have relatively low property taxes too!

    • Michael says:

      The permit fees in Sonoma are ridiculous.

  11. Satya Mardelli says:

    California State government is like a disease metastasizing before your very eyes. Yet no one sees it. Eventually this out of control growth will consume its host.
    Can you do something about it? Sure you can. Will you do something about it? Nope. It’s because Cali residents lack will power.
    It’s easier to just leave Paradise than fight back in a concerted effort.

    • Old school says:

      I am not a fighter in these situations. Do your research and move to a place aligned with your values. I am not sure it will last forever, but right now there are nearly infinite choices in lifestyles in US.

      • Freedomnowandhow says:

        I agree completely. I have purchased, remodeled, and built houses, additions, remodels in various areas. All have there + and – as far as permiting and inspections, along with real estate tax assessments. For your own security and the welfare of your neighbors, building codes do a good job. A good friend of mine is fire chief of a small community, he knows that most fires are caused by insufficient, substandard, old electric wiring. It doesn’t last forever. People do some dumb stuff, and inspections help eliminate, dumb.

    • Jdog says:

      In 1970 there was about 2.5 million Hispanics in CA. Today they are the majority numbering over 25 million. This has changed the entire culture of the State. The company utility company I worked for before retiring, now uses mostly Hispanic vendors, and “mordita” is the rule of business.
      Every vendor pays kickbacks in one form or another, but is allowed to charge above market prices, which are then passed on to the rate payers.
      When people come here from other places, they bring their culture with them, and it is their culture which usually made the places they came from the way they were…..

  12. Beard says:

    News flash – the CA law on ADUs was forced on municipalities by the state. The permit process is their way of fighting back F*** the greedy developers who want to ruin neighborhoods by packing in low income tenants for a few extra bucks

    • KGC says:

      Wow. I didn’t realize it was the developers who were pushing for low cost housing. Good of you to also point out that California has a bad case of NIMBY virus too.

    • MFG says:

      ADUs are one tactic being used to eliminate R-1 zoning (and other zoning regulations, as well).

      The goal appears to be to concrete over every square foot of undeveloped open space. Neighborhoods not only get more dense, they experience more traffic, noise, lights, etc. That’s a sure way to transform municipalities into super high density third worldism.

      In southern California, rents are high, but is super development the answer? What if wages were raised? Would more people be able to afford the rents?

      Amazing that so many do not see the connection between the neoliberal policy of open borders—which Biden is implementing—and downward pressure on wages. The working class experiences the brunt of this, more than any other segment. The PMC (top 20%) benefits hugely–they get low-cost childcare, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, cheap food, etc. Imagine if labor arbitrage affected their sacrosanct high wages…

  13. NARmageddon says:

    Always keep in mind that for every story of permits that were difficult, there are many that went smoothly. Also, in the stories you hear, the person that applied for the permit never made any mistakes or omissions.

    That being said, who in their right mind would want to convert a garage into an ADU studio today? The rental market in sf bay area is overflowing with empty units.

    • Guest says:

      If this WFH trend continues and since most of the major cities are still space limited and people still want to live in cities instead of suburban banality, an ADU makes much more sense. Park the car in the driveway, profit from the habitable inside.

      Think of it as a big main house and small second house. The price difference is probably going to fetch more than what it cost to build the ADU in the end. Or if you rent, that’s two tenants.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      “The rental market in sf bay area is overflowing with empty units.”

      That’s just temporary 🤣🤣🤣

    • Jdog says:

      People are greedy, and always want more money. The really nice thing about ADU’s though, is the outrageous strain they put on neighborhood parking. Nothing that adds to your standard of living like having to park blocks away from your house, because you, and all your neighbors, have converted your parking to an ADU’s…

  14. Robert says:

    “It took him six months to finally get the second permit.”

    Many of these city services related departments in my area are in the information stone age.

    Even if you can enter information online all the data you submitted has to be re-entered into physical paper forms that are then passed from department to department for approvals.

    This is exactly why taxes in my area are so high. Everyone and their relatives is on the take, doing administrative jobs the same way they were done in the 1970s.

  15. Island Teal says:

    The Public sector – in most cities, municipalities, towns, etc need a good flushing. Start with most School Districts and then hit City Hall. 🤑🤑🤑

  16. economicminor says:

    In our southern Oregon area, getting anything done is extremely frustrating. We had a survey done and discovered that a building on our property was slightly on my dad’s property.. So we went in to do a lot line adjustment.. Should have been a simple issue to fix. It took a year and a half and cost in the many thousand$.

    Part of the problem is that the people of this county defunded government starting 4 decades ago. The county tried to make up for the lack of public support for services by implementing ever increasing permit and service fees. Now the county departments are so underfunded that the personnel turn over is extreme. Which means no one knows what they are doing or they really just don’t care because the public acts like they are all ticks on a dog.

    There is a real problem in that many of the laws we operate under are state mandated with no funding. Thus you can’t do anything legal because you can’t get anything thru a dysfunctional government. On the other side, there isn’t any enforcement either. Make new development pretty difficult though.. So although we have lots of undeveloped land, not much development or growth.

    Having rules is an expensive process yet the public either has no money for rules or wants to spend their money on other things. Texas has solved this problem as they just have few rules and you can build pretty much anything anywhere you want with little government interference. Rural Oregon is getting like that but not because there are no rules, there just isn’t anyone to enforce any rules.

    Crazy world!

  17. In CA the state is the mover and the munis are the immovable object. The state pot licensing agency got frustrated with cities who were ignoring applications, and so they put a ten day, put up or shut up rule in effect. If the city doesn’t respond to the growers state request in ten days, it’s automatically approved. Now they have put low income housing mandates on these cities. My city is trying to annex an area that is part of a planned development to meet this mandate. Meanwhile they have enough covenants on my vacant lot, that builders have told me it is not economically feasible to build. I saw an ad for a vacant lot along the coastal strip, at incredible bargain. The description read, “low price of this land, reflects the high cost of development..”

  18. BradK says:

    At the rate people are fleeing CA housing should soon be plentiful. For the first time since the Gold Rush CA has an overall negative population growth and is about to lose a Congressional seat.

    The smart money is getting while the getting is good. Soon, CA will be full on Third World ruled by a small band of elite oligarchs in Hollywood and Silicon Valley and populated mostly by government dependent proles. The once-thriving middle class will be a memory.

    Half of the nation’s homeless are in CA. More to come.

  19. CreditGB says:

    Here is the problem. City politicians and their appointees are incompetent at the jobs they were elected, or appointed to.

    “….that many cities now pay outside consultants on an hourly basis to do their plan checking..”

    A roll up door, a standard unit manufactured for over 100 years, needing “more study”…by hourly paid consultants?? Do the consultants now have their own consultants? Follow the money…its “billable hours”…

    Someone needs to investigate the city’s “consultancy fees paid”. Lots of political friends and relatives in the consulting business no doubt.

    Is it any wonder that Gov’t is so expensive and utterly useless?

    • economicminor says:

      If you work for a city or county and you make a mistake, it can cost you your job… Soooo no one wants to make a decision. Employees are either well paid long timers and afraid OR underpaid and have no knowledge or experience and also afraid.

      So little to nothing gets done.

      This makes the public hate government and justify not wanting them to collect any taxes much less even exist..

      More evidence the world is turned upside down.

      • Jdog says:

        BS. Bureaucrat’s make mistakes constantly. Next to doing nothing, screwing the task up completely, is what they do best, and no one gets fired, because their union makes it impossible to get fired unless you kill somebody, and if your a cop, not even then.
        The truth of the matter is the function of government today is to CREATE problems. They create the problems, then they demand more money to fix them. It is a scam on epic proportion.

    • fajensen says:

      I would not have asked about installing that roll up door.

      I Scandinavia, we kinda suffer from the opposite problem. Here, all the contractors do what we call a “verified self-inspection”, meaning that they inspect and approve their own work.

      The “verified” part is that one needs another contractor on ones side, f.ex., an architect to check the work and inspection records because – of course – most of the builders will cut any corner they can and some are just incompetent and don’t even recognise shoddy work.

      If one buys a house from one of “the trades”, one can be pretty certain that everything in the property within that persons trade, is at least shit and possibly lethal. Because, they can legally approve their own work and these people are quite happy to crap where they eat!

      The house I bought from an electrician, I don’t think there is One Room where there is not some illegal installation, even the main feeder to the house is visibly installed incorrectly.

  20. A says:

    It’s finally here – they’ve constricted the supply of everything from homes to cars go computer chips go lumber and now they’ve poured endless money into a closed-up system.

    Massive inflation is hitting, dollars are worthless.

    • economicminor says:

      The fed is going to run out of debt to put on its balance sheet.. So DC will need to keep spending more and more to create the needed debt. Sending money out in all directions like a fertilizer spreader… All in an endless circle jerk of non productive pretending and proselytizing.

      All while the non productive creation creates demand without the production function.. What happens when you have shortages and demand remains the same… Higher prices.. Until something breaks the chain.

      And the imbalances grow greater and greater!

  21. Socal Rhino says:

    Based on what I’ve heard from friends who are builders here in south Orange County, I’m guessing this is a city-by-city issue rather than the state. Or maybe varies by region.

    That said, I agree we need a functioning second political party in California.

  22. Jame Blish says:

    Vote with your feet.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      “Just do it!”

      It’s way too congested and crowded here.

      • 91B20 1stCav (AUS) says:

        Thanks, Wolf. And, those to whom it applies, remember the great Woody Guthrie’s lyric from the (!)1930’s :

        “…California’s a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see, but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got the ‘do-re-mi’…”.

        In the event, history shows few were dissuaded over the next 85-or-so years. We could do with a little negative population pressure…

        may we all find a better day.

  23. Guesr says:

    Government WFH has slowed down permitting even longer a year later. What used to be potentially a one-trip counter visit is now weeks. What was weeks last year during lockdown is now twice as long.

    It seems everyone is working more (that sweet overtime) but the lead times increase more.

  24. Dano says:

    A couple years back some friends went thru permitting to redevelop an old house into apartments in Seattle. It took well over 18 months to get approval, but beyond that… the city was requiring them to also pave a gravel alley owned by the city no less!

    Fortunately when they went out for bids there were several developers happy to buy the property with plans & permits for a good profit. They figured, why go they the hassle?

    I’ve done many minor remodels on homes I’ve owned. Never once pulled a permit. Just wasn’t worth the hassle, along with the immediate bump in property taxes that come with “improved value”.

    The one home I built from scratch was in a semi-rural area. That building department was easy to work with and things moved quickly and smoothly. In fact, so smooth that when I wanted to make a few field changes that made sense the building inspectors didn’t even ask me to update the plans. Couldn’t do that anymore there. Now they operate like the “big boys”.

    • Paulo says:

      One thing that has happened in BC was the ‘losing’ of building inspectors. When I first started working for my brother in 1973….building houses, the inspector would come around several times. Pre concrete pour to check the foundation, the framing, and upon completion. They also checked over the plans and noted any changes they would like to see. In short, they were helpful. Sometimes they would just pop in to shoot the shit and see your work.

      Nowadays, Municipalities don’t have the thorough inspection services but still require an engineering signoff. The need a ‘stamp’. Engineers, fearing lawsuits and usually having little to no building experience themselves (job site experience), over design. Sometimes they call for crazy stipulations like steel I beams for a garage door header as opposed to a built-up wooden beam. The ‘stamp’ costs $1500 dollars even when the plans are commercial and certified. All these costs are added on to the cost of building.

      The worst thing that can happen to anyone building is the discovery of archeological history on a building site. I know in the PNW it has to be signed off if it is anywhere near the coast. If they find bones? The job is stopped immediately.

  25. Jdog says:

    I purchased a home with acreage in CA in 1994, and immediately pulled a permit for an addition. I was in and out of the County Administration building in less than an hour.
    In 2003 I decided to build a detached garage on the same property and the permit process took nearly a month. That was when I saw the writing on the wall and began making plans to leave CA….
    There is no hope for CA. It is a lost cause.

  26. Micheal Engel says:

    The next CA governor might be Leo Terrel.

  27. Questa Nota says:

    The permit process, and variations, provides an enterprising bureaucrat with ample opportunity to exercise prerogatives. Those range from the routine, like “I don’t feel like working very hard now/this week/this month” to the more esoteric, like “this is my chance to hold up a process just because I can, and maybe force some social good that I define through the system. So, pave that alley to reduce dust, hire my cousin, and ask how high to jump.

    TL;DR – Everything devolves to be like the DMV, unless citizens speak up and demand accountability.

  28. Rosebud says:

    The article and thread is a Filibuster, designed to cool passions of a multi Trillion piece artwork standard, coordinated at same time as epic Elon correction.

  29. info says:

    Democrats love red tape.

  30. Beardawg says:

    When I owned and rehabbed lower end rental properties in AZ and MO, never pulled a permit, but I never added SF to my props, except a couple walls with electric in a KC MO 2BR house to make it a 4BR.

    I always fully disclosed my “non-permitted” improvements to my Buyers and no one cared. I suspect many of them have gone through the anecdotal horror stories We are reading about in these comments.

    That said, when I rehabbed houses in KC which had no operating electric when I bought them, the monopoly Elec Co required a City Permit with new Weatherhead / mast, new meter can, ground etc (i.e. upgraded elec) to make the Elec Co’s job easier. Getting City inspections completed took OVER 2 YEARS on one house and 10 months on another (weather, staff shortages, we went there to inspect at a random time and no one was there so now you are at the bottom of the pile again, etc). $34,000 in rent GONE- but they don’t care.

    • Jdog says:

      It is really kind of a joke. As long as you are not adding square footage, pulling a permit is really a waste of time and money. It really makes no difference at all when you sell. No one seems to care.

  31. NotMe says:

    The graft in the SF housing department is legendary. There is one ethnic group that demands graft or kindly offers a cash buyer that they know.

    SF is joining the third world.

    • Marden says:

      Have done work around San Francisco city hall for decades, couldn’t agree more. Here’s an example:
      Property records used to be run by an old German immigrant named Hildegarde. She knew every inch of the places, the obscure files, the ins and outs and was extremely helpful.
      She was replace by two women who boast of growing up in the projects, can’t do jack, who talk about basketball, where they get their nail extensions done and with their feeding tubes inserted into the tax base, will be there for at least another ten years, frustrating the public and disgusting those that must use their office.
      Same thing with MUNI bus system management, all the city departments, except the field workers in the Water Department, which for some strange reason has been left almost as good as it once was. Hyper essential service perhaps?
      The Transit Center cost overrun and engineering disaster, headed up by another one of Willie Brown’s old girlfriends, is an example at the infrastructure level.
      What happens when it gets to the white house?

  32. Jared says:

    I would almost bet that Hawaii is worse than California when it comes to issuing permits.

    • Jdog says:

      Have you ever seen the houses in Hawaii? I don’t think they know what a permit is.

      • joe2 says:

        In Hawaii there are locals related to the politicians, and there are haoles. You can usually “work out an arrangement” if you stay cool and expect to pay for it. Important to make friends. Lots of gifting.
        One of the reasons I like the East. Practical and costly but not ideological and woke.
        Lived there for 4 years.

  33. R Russ says:

    There was time when I made the insane choice to buy an apartment in Palo Alto. It was the only way to live there for under $1M.

    And then I made the even more insane choice to remodel the place. I had architect drawings and naively took then to the building dept for approval.
    I then go back after several weeks and am presented with a long list of red ink change orders. and I went about making the changes and again went back and resubmitted.
    I thought that would be approved, but I was so wrong. I got back another long list of red ink change orders. I asked why these were not in the first list … to no avail.
    And went back to make the revisions and resubmit. But this time I talked to the building dept supervisor and demanded that this be the final revision, explaining that I had remodeled houses in other places, and in other countries, and if treated like this would assume that someone was on the take and expected me to grease the wheels.

    I also asked a local architect, and was told be extra careful, because others have been prosecuted for doing that.

    My plans got approved and the remodel was not burdened with any more BS.

    It was not so long after that I heard of a Chinese guy who responded as I thought any normal person might, and he was prosecuted.

    • joe2 says:

      i was waiting in line at the country building permit office and overheard the guy in front of me arguing with the toady. His building permit for a high rise apartment complex was denied because the distance from the back corner of the penthouse master bedroom closet was a few feet too far from the front door. A fire code issue.
      He left, I guess to go back to see his architect
      Most of these county employees are insufferable tyrants.

  34. NARmageddon says:

    Palo Alto People — Palo Alto Problems (PAP-PAP) :=)

  35. Mojer says:

    After reading all these comments, all that same ineffective bureaucracy is the same in many European countries. Our western world is dying.
    Asia will overwhelm us.

    • Jdog says:

      Asia is no better, possibly with the exception of Japan, and Korea. The rest of Asia is drowning in corruption and bureaucracy too… Many countries in Asia are so corrupt, you cannot even mail a check without it getting stolen.
      Do you know what effect that has on business?

  36. joe2 says:

    Hell building permits. I don’t know anyone who would actually apply for one unless the construction was visible from the street. Renovations? You need to meet any new stupid building and zoning codes for the entire building. Get ready for the new greenie wish list.

    I applied for a permit for commercial use for 1000 rented sqft in a big commercial building and the county requested a building plan for the entire structure and recompliance with new building code and application for zoning variances for the entire building. The landlord told me he would evict me if I did that. I retracted the permit request.

    In a condo, I requested a single unit plumbing permit to reroute a tub drain and the county forced the entire complex (5 buildings) to make changes to meet new code including installation of a new fire alarm system. Since any new building permit activates new building code requirements for the entire complex. The inspector who finally arrived laughed at me.

    A friend opened a bar and was required to provide a $10K “political contribution” to the mayor for the liquor license.

    So who the hell pulls permits now? You just cruise and sell and let the next guy fight it out.

    Wolf, you block this post and I am out of here.

  37. Paul Schuyler says:

    I know a guy too that has had similar issues in Houston.

  38. Jdog says:

    When the system fails to work, people stop using the system.

  39. JimT in Canada says:

    We have had a 3rd party – left-leaning, overtly socialist – here in Canada for most of my life. It pulls votes away from the more center-left Liberals and splits the vote, so that the conservatives sometimes get a turn at power, even though the majority voted ABC – Anything But Conservative.

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