Home Politics Politics Report: San Diego Hiring Private Workers to Help with Massive Permit Backlog

Politics Report: San Diego Hiring Private Workers to Help with Massive Permit Backlog

Politics Report: San Diego Hiring Private Workers to Help with Massive Permit Backlog

It now takes the better part of a year for the city of San Diego to approve a building permit. The city is taking a rare step to fix the problem.

On Monday, the City Council will vote on two separate $2.5 million contracts with third-party companies to help city staff review applications for new developments.

Those contracts are seen as a stopgap solution to a massive backlog of permit applications that has built up since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Long-term, the city will have to make its permanent development services positions more competitive to reduce a staffing shortage that helped create the backlog in the first place.

The issue has become so severe – it now routinely takes six to nine months to issue a standard building permit, according to timelines posted on the city’s website, with over 3,000 applications in the city’s possession at any time – that the city’s union representing the white-collar workers who review permits is welcoming the help from private companies.

“Our employees in the department who are completely overwhelmed, many of them are asking us to provide this relief and not take a hard line on it,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association. “That’s why we’re saying, ‘Let’s fix this underlying problem with better compensation, but in the meantime let’s take the pressure off.’”

Increasing compensation for staff of the city’s development services department will need to come from contract negotiations that are now underway between city management and MEA. That could wrap up this spring.

But the contracted workers the city is bringing in – from the firms NV5, Inc. and Interwest Consulting Group – are intended to cover work that can’t be done as long as the city has so many vacancies in the department. Of the 109 positions whose work is most relevant to plan review that were already included in the city’s approved budget, nearly one third are currently unfilled.

“You don’t need a survey to show that these positions right now aren’t competitive as long as we have budgeted, funded positions that that they can’t fill over the people they’re losing,” Zucchet said. “It’s a retention problem and we’ve only been losing ground.”

The ballooning permit review times have not been a secret to people who build things – so much so that Mayor Todd Gloria featured the wonky policy fix in his State of the City address this month.

He signed an executive order, he announced, that would direct city staff to try to issue permits for projects that are entirely composed of homes reserved for low-income residents within just one month. That got the most attention, but he also acknowledged the city’s problem.

“My executive order also directs city development services department to expeditiously hire new positions to review and issue housing permits and to immediately implement contracts to address the permitting backlog,” he said.

There’s nothing new about developers wanting the city to approve their projects faster – but in recent years, including the city’s shift to a new online permitting application system and the city’s inability to fill budgeted positions, they’ve become increasingly frustrated, even by their normal standards.

“Everything has just ballooned,” said Garrett van Leeuwen, an architect at Gensler, a planning and development firm. “There are small tenant-improvement projects that are taking longer to approve than they are to build. There are things that should take four to six months that are taking longer than a year. There are impacts on anyone that’s trying to build anything.”

Elon Musk Responded to Jim Desmond!

County Supervisor Jim Desmond tweeted at Elon Musk Friday asking for the billionaire’s input on San Diego’s transportation system. Musk said “sure” and then cc’d his Boring Company, which invented tunnels.

Bipartisan aficionados: Ironically, seeing Musk as a potential partner to unlock a futuristic transportation system in San Diego is a perspective Desmond borrowed from SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata. Desmond and Ikhrata are not exactly aligned on transportation policy these days.

What tech though? From the day he arrived as the new leader of the agency, Ikhrata floated some of Musk’s projects as potentially vital to the region. He first proposed the region embrace the hyperloop technology Musk elevated – the hyperloop guys, however, came to town and said their largely still theoretical airtight super-tubes, though, would only be worth doing over much longer distances than even the widest stretch of the county. Think San Diego to Vegas not San Diego to Escondido.

The other transportation tech Musk has, besides his electric cars, is the Boring Company, which digs tunnels through which his Tesla cars are allowed to drive. Ikhrata and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria recently toured the Boring Company’s Las Vegas project.

It’s a 1.7-mile tunnel they let a fleet of Tesla cars drive through. There’s an unintentionally hilarious video about it as the “future of transport” you can enjoy here. It features such quotes as “But building a massive tunnel system has its challenges.”

Ikhrata was pretty enthusiastic about it a few years ago. He told us this:

“The Boring Company, that Elon Musk did – I’m not crazy about Elon Musk per se, but I think his company, his ideas, are being adopted by people who want to do stuff,” he said.

Chief Executive Officer Hasan Ikhrata during a SANDAG Board of Directors meeting in downtown on Jan. 27, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Now, after touring the project in Vegas, Ikhrata is less optimistic.

“If you can use it and your commute went from 40 mins to five minutes, I’m sure you’d like it. But you have to have a Tesla to use it. In my view, it’s not a transit project,” Ikhrata told us.

Right now, the Boring Company is only capable of making a tunnel wide enough (12 feet) for a car, not for trains or other systems. And it’s having a little trouble delivering on its promises.

SANDAG’s taking innovative proposals but not from Musk. The agency recently put out a request for innovative or experimental ideas for transportation improvements. It got proposals from 13 companies, including Musk’s Boring Company. However, Boring did not make the cut for the final three companies with which SANDAG is going to continue discussions.


From Jesse Marx, on Asian empowerment: We pulled a few numbers this week to get a sense of how important the Asian and Pacific Islander vote really was in San Diego City Council District 6, now that Kent Lee is sitting in Chris Cate’s old seat. Eighteen percent of D6 residents who participated in the November election were of AAPI descent and represented 21.5 percent of the total ballots cast for City Council. That’s not as high as some advocates had hoped when the district boundaries were being redrawn (AAPI adult-citizens make up a third of the population). But the gap suggests there was greater enthusiasm among AAPI voters in D6 for the City Council candidates than the election overall. Wesley Quach at the Asian Business Association, who supported Lee, said he was happy with the turnout and hopes to see it grow, regardless of who’s on the ballot.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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