Tucked into the City Council’s vote Tuesday to approve the annual budget is a name change for Long Beach’s Development Services Department, a move that its director hopes will boost employee morale and make his organization more approachable.
If the council approves the change, Development Services will be renamed the Community Development Department, something its director, Christopher Koontz, said he had pitched when he took over the department on an interim basis in August 2022.
“A name is important, but it’s not the only thing,” Koontz said, noting that the department will soon begin work to reintroduce itself to the community over the next year. Koontz was named the full-time director in November.
The name change won’t affect what the department does, but Koontz told the council last month that it’s needed because the department doesn’t work just for developers. In fact, it does most of its work in the community.
Koontz said that when people hear the word “development” the first thought is often a large apartment project Downtown, but the department is also involved in home renovations, which is the bulk of its permitting work on an annual basis.
“By volume, we do more than 12,000 permits per year, but I’d say less than one hundred are for big projects,” Koontz said.
Development Services does some things that the public might not associate with it, like organizing neighborhood cleanups and administering grants to homeowners for things like roof repairs and downpayment assistance.
It also helped distribute the 10s of millions in rental relief payments for tenants during the pandemic and provides loans to developers who are building affordable housing projects in the city.
Its employees have been busy meeting with residents across the city to explain how new zoning adopted by the City Council will be implemented in their neighborhoods. This week, it will host the first of several meetings to listen to what residents and other stakeholders want to see the Downtown shoreline look like in the future.
The department is also in charge of code enforcement, which helps keep neighborhoods clean and homes habitable through the city’s Proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program, Koontz said.
Koontz said one of the biggest issues the city faces in terms of code enforcement is vacant buildings. People can break into them, the buildings sometimes catch fire and they can be a general eyesore for neighbors.
Code enforcement officers help track down the real owners of vacant commercial buildings, which are often held as part of an LLC, and through conversations and escalating fines, those buildings are often brought into compliance.
Those officers also inspect rental homes and make sure that they have working heaters and smoke alarms, and are free of vermin. Koontz said the program really is meant for about 1% of landlords but admits the team “really sees some troubling things out there.”
“We’re really touching families all throughout the city whether they’re renting or owning,” he said.
Those community-facing teams like the Housing and Neighborhood Services Bureau could see a morale boost from the name change, Koontz said, noting that it’s hard to create camaraderie and a common purpose in a big organization like Development Services.
The department has about 242 full-time equivalent positions budgeted for the coming year and Koontz is hopeful that the switch to “Community Development” could help with retention and hiring for the department, which has a vacancy rate of about 30%.
The change in name will come with some costs, but it’s not a significant amount of money, Koontz said,
Employees will have to get new business cards printed, but because of the pandemic, the department doesn’t have a lot of preexisting swag, which it would typically give away at public events.
Koontz said that the department will hold onto a few keepsakes from the Development Services era, which could end up at the Long Beach Historical Society, noting that his team just found a collection of pens from when the department was called “Planning and Building.”
“We’re working with a consultant to create a written history of the changes, so it’s not kind of lost—so that history gets written,” Koontz said.
The Long Beach City Council is scheduled to vote on the fiscal year budget at its Sept. 5 meeting.