City official admits building permit delays are failing customers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, permit approval delays at the city’s Building and Safety Bureau have gotten so long even city officials are admitting it’s a major problem for anyone wanting to do even a simple remodel job to their home.

“During this period, permit turnaround times, customer communication, and overall development review process have not met the City’s goals nor the needs or expectations of our customers,” Oscar Orci, Development Services director who oversees the bureau, wrote to City Manager Tom Modica in a May 11 memo.

When asked to comment on the memo, Development Services spokesman Rick de la Torre said “it speaks for itself” and referred questions to the Bureau of Building and Safety website.

According to that website, the current permit response times range from three to six weeks for “express permits” (roofing or a new electrical panel, for instance) to two to three weeks for “general inquiries.” Taken individually, the times don’t seem too bad. But when put together, and inspections are added, the delays can stretch into months or even longer.

“You’re lucky if you get a permit in five months,” said Al Sanchez, who owns Long Beach Building Contractors.

Sanchez said one recent client who wanted a room addition nearly gave up on the project because of the delays. Another client, who just wanted to replace an electrical panel, was finally approved in April after waiting since October.

Sanchez estimates that the delays in permitting have cut his business in half over the last year. In fact, he said he recently applied for a federal disaster loan to cover the losses.

“In the application, I specifically explained that the permitting process here has not allowed us to do business legally,” Sanchez said. “The bigger jobs that put food on the table just aren’t happening.”

Alex Cornejo, who owns Cornejos Builders in Downey, has experienced similar problems.

“I don’t even want to do business there anymore,” Cornejo said. “I turn down clients in Long Beach.”

Cornejo said one client who wanted to convert their garage to a liveable unit had to wait 13 months for approval.

Sanchez and Cornejo both say they’re not experiencing similar permitting delays in smaller cities like Downey and Lakewood. “Nothing as bad as Long Beach,” said Cornejo.

Like all city departments, the building bureau has been closed to the public since March 2020. The office partially reopened on May 10, though it was by appointment only and just for express permits.

Throughout much of the pandemic, all permitting was only done by phone and email, which caused delays in permit intake and approval, according to the memo. Making matters worse, the city imposed furloughs in October. In January, more key personnel left the bureau, leaving the office understaffed.

“Since January 2021, the Bureau has experienced a 50 percent vacancy rate, up from 27 percent vacancy overall in 2020,” Orci wrote in his memo.

Orci’s memo outlined a number of moves to address these issues. To plug staffing holes, the bureau has relied on overtime, consultants, staffers from other departments and additional people from Pacific Gateway Workforce Development, a public job assistance agency.

“Department management have taken an all-hands on deck approach to focus on improving the Permit Center customer experience,” Orci wrote, adding that managers and supervisors have begun working on permitting as well.

But Orci’s memo states that “incomplete applications”—caused in large part by moving the permitting process to a digital system—are also responsible for some of the delays. Staff are spending more time collecting required information than issuing permits, Orci said in his memo.

According to Orci’s memo, new software upgrades should improve the online application and payment process by this summer. His office expects that the Permit Center will expand in-person services sometime by late summer or early fall.

All of this isn’t lost on the contractors, who said they understand that all city departments are closed. And at least one has already spotted signs of improvement. “They seem overburdened,” Sanchez said. “But it does seem like last month they’ve stepped up. Just this month, it’s getting a little better.”

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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.
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