Yourre papers to remodel yourre privy have been receiv'd and are in the queue, but we shan't be readin' them forre six weekes or morre.

On Sept. 9, the sun did not rise in San Francisco. Wildfire smoke shrouded the city, and masked figures scurried about while bathed in a jailbreak orange glow. 

It was on the next morning that the incident occurred. 

On the first-floor lobby of the city’s one-stop permitting center, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., a man reached the end of his patience. He yelled to anyone who would listen that he could not handle the Department of Building Inspection permitting system, that he could not obtain the necessary in-person meetings to obtain his permits, and that his projects could not move forward. 

Frustration with the Department of Building Inspection’s archaic and arcane systems was common even before the pandemic. But, of note, this man is a permit expediter; negotiating these systems is his job.

He went on to shout that he could not earn a living or even feed himself if he could not obtain these permits — and he could not obtain these permits without an in-person meeting, even in the midst of a pandemic. He lamented that he should not have to cheat the system like everyone else. So he threatened to kill himself. 

He then said he would make his case to the mayor herself. But, as he left to walk to City Hall, he horrified the onlookers with what he said next: “I will kill myself in front of her.” 

We won’t keep you in suspense: This man was saved. Sources tell us that he was intercepted by sheriff’s deputies at or near City Hall and placed on a 5150 involuntary hold. He has, by all appearances, stabilized and improved. He’s even back on the job. He’s working. 

The system that drove him to the brink, however, isn’t. 

Drilling into the cement for bench poles, January, 2016. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros / Mission Local.

Several years ago, a San Francisco architect was on a job in the far north of the state. He matter-of-factly told a Truckee-based colleague that, in the big city, they’re still doing permit applications in person and on paper. On big jobs, boxes of material might have to be rolled through the building on a dolly. It might even take a few trips. And these materials are often marked up by hand — and the only way to get things done concurrently is to provide multiple paper copies to multiple individuals or groups.  

The engineer from Truckee was dumbfounded. In Truckee, they’d been requesting and receiving permits digitally for well more than a decade. Compared to San Francisco, Truckee is Wakanda. 

San Francisco’s paper-and-pen-based system, in which plans are manually moved from person to person to person in a time-consumingly sequential and linear manner, is a setup that traces back to the dawn of paper and pens. One can only imagine the handwritten plan-check comments on Geoffrey Chaucer’s renovation: Ye nede a litel lesse wattle and a litel morre daub, methinks. 

“The ability to submit paperless is a humongous difference between San Francisco and other jurisdictions,” says an architect who works throughout the Bay Area. “You have to physically shlep giant rolls of drawings to the department to have them circulate around. And the amount of times that drawings have just been lost sitting on someone’s desk or in transit — you would be shocked.” 

Would we, though? Stories of the building department’s stubborn resistance to technological improvements and best-practices and its jarring malfeasance and corruption — and the undeniable symbiosis at play here — have become commonplace. Far from being shocked, we are inured. 

And that was one thing when buildings were rising and the Department of Building Inspection was ankle-deep in money. Then the pandemic hit, the economy was staggered — and, to top it off, the department’s stubborn insistence on retaining antiquated systems requiring in-person meetings and reams of paperwork has additionally crippled it. 

The Department of Building Inspection is an “enterprise department” that generates its own revenue. But a down economy, coupled with an inability to process permits, has led to a deficit. And now the department, like that distraught permit expediter, is struggling to make a living or even feed itself. 

line outside DBI
In this March 16, 2020 photo, a line of permit-seekers stretched out the door of the Department of Building Inspection and down Mission Street at the exact moment the mayor and health director were announcing the initial shelter-in-place order.

And, of course, it didn’t need to be this way. 

Just as the pandemic has exposed the greater iniquities of American society, it has exposed the regressive nature of this city’s building department. 

We’ve written about this, as have others, but it bears repeating now: The Department of Building Inspection inked a a deal in 2011 with the government software company Accela to create a master system that could’ve made driving a van full of documents to the building department and dropping it off in several trips a vestige of the past, alongside phone booths, smoking sections, and non-bluegrass uses of washboards. 

If Accela — or any modern system — had been installed, you wouldn’t need to submit hard copies of material in paper, to be marked up by hand. One presumes customers wouldn’t then need to make an appointment to walk back into a government building (yes, during a pandemic) to pick up those handwritten comments. But that’s how it is now. 

One presumes that reams of forms would be eliminated. One presumes that that the electronic forms replacing the extant forms wouldn’t be so jarringly antiquated that the prefix “Mr.” is placed, de-facto, in front of the name slots. But that’s how it is now. 

You could have done all of this digitally. Like they do in Truckee. Like they do in many other Bay Area locales; a city architect tells me he recently submitted electronically to permit a bathroom remodel in the South Bay, and the whole thing was approved in a matter of days. 

In San Francisco, meanwhile, we are informed that last week a city plan checker told a resident that her (paper) plans are in his queue, but he won’t get to them for six weeks — at least. 

So, that’s what you could do if you had Accela operational. But, of course, it isn’t. San Francisco’s Planning Department got it installed, as have building departments in New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia; and Oakland, California. But not San Francisco’s building department. 

The city last year demanded millions of dollars from Accela for failing to deliver on this yearslong project. These claims regarding Accela’s shortcomings and failures are laid out in excruciating detail, and San Francisco’s abortive attempts to implement the program turned out to be a buggy nightmare. But, it often takes two to tango, and it’s clear that the Department of Building Inspection’s upper echelons of management never wanted what Accela could deliver — and undermined its development. 

We are told that DBI officials out-and-out flaked on implementation meetings, and, when deigning to attend them, treated the procedures with all the respect and solemnity Sen. Josh Hawley demonstrated during the impeachment trial. 

Because if Accela eliminated a system in which forests’ worth of papers are pushed from one desk to the next, it would’ve ruined the cottage industry of connected permit expediters who, by some alchemy, always manage to get their folders placed on the top of the pile (Walter Wong, with characteristic lack of subtlety, conveniently color-coded his folders so his network of cronies could distinguish them. For good measure, he also purportedly had his own set of keys to the building department, and was known to wander in at off hours — which would be a great way to ensure his or his clients’ plans and permits moved through the system rapidly, without much in the way of quality control). 

And, if Accela eliminated the possibility of retroactively logging into the system and altering or deleting records — well, Department of Building Inspection officials weren’t universally thrilled about that, either. The building department’s extant Permit Tracking System is stunningly malleable. Every permit technician and plan-checker has access to the system and can, potentially, alter extant records. Unintentionally or otherwise. 

Of note, FBI officials noticed when files for the 555 Fulton project — which former public works boss Mohammed Nuru and ousted Department of Building Inspection head Tom Hui allegedly improperly leaned on underlings to move along — disappeared and reappeared off the system. 

On Accela, this couldn’t happen. But, perhaps, that was the point.

Construction scene, May 2014.

After rapidly attempting to shift to electric permitting at the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Building Inspection sent out an Aug. 14, 2020, internal email announcing it would, by and large, curtail this practice and return to paper. 

The department’s attempts to immediately pivot to paperless after years of active resistance failed, and led to a massive backlog the department is still attempting to dig its way out of. 

Using a program called Bluebeam, electronic permitting is currently in effect for a narrow scope of projects, including 100 percent affordable housing or large, “development agreement” projects. And documents obtained by Mission Local indicate that, in these cases, it is working well. Applications are being processed in just a couple of days. 

For the vast majority of projects, however, electronic permitting is not offered. And so, applicants who sent in requests for a necessary in-person meeting in November are still awaiting appointment dates. When those dates are set, they will hand over their (paper) plans — which will then sit for God knows how long before being passed from one desk to another to another, with little ability for multiple parties to concurrently do work.

If you’re a homeowner with one project in stasis or a permit expediter with dozens, it’s on you to check back, every day, to see if your plans are ready for the next step. There’s no proactive text or email sent your way. This isn’t Wakanda, after all. It’s not even Truckee. 

San Francisco’s building department is, undoubtedly, working hard to move things along during plague times. But its earlier misdeeds during times of plenty are weighing it down. And whatever path the department now chooses to take, it figures it’ll have to do it with a lot less money coming in. That could well be a problem that extends beyond the Department of Building Inspection — it would be problematic if, say, permits couldn’t be expediently processed for HVAC installations in offices, right? 

“And the amount of times that drawings have just been lost sitting on someone’s desk or in transit — you would be shocked.” 

Because, separate and apart from any technological issues is the matter of the building department’s ingrained culture. Source after source contacted for this story — builders, architects, developers, expediters, current and former departmental employees — said that the way to negotiate an obstacle in an obstacle-laden system is to call up departmental higher-ups that you know, and get them involved.

“The only way to get anything done is to go to the top levels of the department,” says one city architect. “That is not how it should work. A senior staff member should not have to be inquiring about a remodel permit.” 

In this architect’s case, in fact, it took several weeks of effort and thousands of dollars of billable hours to figure out how to physically take possession of an approved permit. 

And this is a matter that cuts deeper than any technological upgrade.

“This,” he says, “points to complete institutional dysfunction.” 

And that is hard to fix, or even contemplate fixing. But this city’s long-term ability to earn a living and feed itself hangs in the balance.


Follow Us

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation


Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. You might want to quiz your SFDBI contacts on why some projects are given the designation *parallel plan check*, as if it is a special treatment.

    Accela worked perfectly for the Millennium Tower’s “Perimeter Pile Upgrade” until it didn’t. The project application, 4 different types of plans & 2 technical reports, were all posted to Accela, beginning 12/19/2018. They were still there on Aug 30, 2019, when I refereed an interested party to their availability. Now they are gone, along with any link to Accela. Accela had always been listed on SFDBI permits but largely left unused by SFDBI. Usually the only entry was for the name of an Architect or Expediter, as the party making the submission.

    Probably the most egregious example of SFDBI favoritism is 80 Natoma. SFDBI was working with Myers Construction before Myers had even gained legal possession of the property. SFDBI approved a shoring permit for piling on 80 Natoma, based on just on geotechnical bore log. Everything SFDBI did was to maximize the value of 80 Natoma before the property was condemned, to build the Transbay Transit Center.

    And who, you may ask was the Plan Check? Why good ole’ Tom Hui. He was consequently promoted to Deputy or Assistant Director for his malfeasance.

  2. Here is a small example of how frustrating it is. When one needs a Building Permit to replace windows that are facing the street, one must first seek approval from the Planning Dept. Although it can be a “simple” over the counter process (unless they say no) they must hand write on the back of the Permit Application in some detail what they are allowing. The crazy part is that on the copy page of that Application they must again hand write the exact same paragraph. And you are standing there watching this in disbelief, knowing that this is happening in the center of the tech universe and yet they are still working in the pre carbon paper era. It’s so pathetic because every one knows it’s lame but it just continues.

  3. Thank you for addressing this incredible ineptness.
    My suggestion to S.F. residents would be to call out the waste of natural resources, the Green House Gasses associated with making the paper, driving the paper around and to the city, the GHG for printing the plans, and driving to print shop and back. S.F. has a Climate goal and I guarantee the building dept is blowing that out of the water.
    I do wonder what happens to plans that cross the time line of a new code cycle? It would be impossible to have architects revise the plans to match the current code cycle while they were in plan check and/or permitting. What the heck are they doing about that? What a snafu and from a ‘progressive’ city. What a shame, or is that sham?

  4. I’m a licensed general contractor and I build in various part of the Bay Area. I’m very familiar with the planning/ building process and we do things properly in every city, with permits. I heard from several general contractors that working in the city is a nightmare, and they wouldn’t work in the city at any cost. Baloney, I thought, and I looked forward to working on my first project in the city. It felt like a prestigious thing to do!

    We got the building permit for a project in the city (the process was paper-based), and started. Then we were told we had to get separate MEP (mechanical/electrical/plumbing) permits, which is also a paper-based process. No other city does this in the Bay Area, AFAIK. This was a nightmare – first of all, when we got the building permits, nobody told us we’d need separate MEP permits, and secondly, it took about two months to get them, while the project was at a standstill.

    The process makes residents and general contractors suffer, and the city doesn’t care. A bureaucracy such as this one is in place, to keep certain city workers employed. We can do better than this – I’m just disgusted with what I’ve seen with this process!

  5. Very insightful. I’m in construction myself, and it’s a combination of things like this that make SF the number 1 most expensive place to build.
    Thank you for your article and time!

  6. Joe please do follow ups on this story. Like who appoints the commissioners? Follow the money between the RBA and campaign or other contributions. What keeps these guys in power? The Chronicle focuses on the little people, but not on the Commission where the power lies. Look at the hiring process for the new director. It ensures that it will be someone internal who will be compliant.

  7. It does take a mountain to move a mole hill with SF DBI. Thank you for writing this article and giving this massive lameness the light it needs.

  8. More great reporting Joe.

    Yes, the entire system at DBI (and Planning, to a lesser extent) is set up so that we’ll-connected permit expediters can get their projects approved in a hurry, bypassing everyone who submitted plans ahead of them. The expediters get big money, they grease some palms at DBI to get their projects approved, then the developer greases the inspectors’ palms and you end up with the Millennium Tower.

    Having a haphazard, manual “system” in place allows the graft to be more easily hidden.

  9. I’ve actually found DBI to be reasonable especially for OTC permits. Planning is much worse. If you are looking to add on to a house/building expect 2+ years to get a permit. I’m on year 7 because planning completely screwed me on one project that we had to abandon and then buy a different property.

    If there is a more dysfunctional planning/DBI in the nation I’d love to know where… I seriously doubt it, but it might make me feel better and shorten my years of therapy.

  10. Just watch BIC meetings in which former director Hui continuously tells the commissioners that every thing is moving along but keeps delaying the launch date…this goes on for years and the BIC just lets Hui waste millions just to save his own political future (LOL)…at the same time it made the commissioners look good..”we’re headed into the future”…all smiles…You never hear anything about it now at any BIC meetings….Hey Angus what can you say about the millions on dollars spent without anything to show for it….Blame Hui…hahaha. step up to the plate Angus

  11. Thanks for the report. Unfortunately, this nonsense is typical of the way SF operates. Something not mentioned: the city employee workers’ unions view of modernizing. SF has the 2nd highest number of employees per resident than any major city in the US. Only Washington, DC, has more. I they brought the permit and other processes into the 2020s, could The City accomplish the tasks with fewer public employees?

  12. Replacing a water heater with a permit ended up costing us more than $8,000 and taking a full year (three months of which we had no hot water). Now, our back porch steps—two wooden steps—need to be replaced. No way in hell will I do it the “right” way—we learned our lesson.

  13. The rest of us figured this out a long time ago. Do not bother with permits. There are plenty of contractors who will ask you “Do you want permits or not?”

    Obviously no permits is cheaper, and often there is a property tax saving as well.

    1. yeah its all great until you actually need something approved by DBI. that’s when all the cheating comes back to haunt you.

  14. Please check out the thread titled “Building permits” on Nextdoor, posted 3 days ago (Feb 11 or 12). I live near the Mission Local office, & I was able to view it.

  15. Thanks for reporting on DBI’s current state-of-affairs. Let’s get the basics of government efficiency right! I became a monthly Mission Local donor when I noticed you reporting on this topic. Keep it up! Thank you

  16. Joe,
    Your column raises a lot of questions, and, in particular, ones about Bluebeam:
    1. Where did the Bluebeam system come from; how was it put in place?
    2. Is the Bluebeam system meant to replace the Accela system?
    3. What is Bluebeam’s reputation at other City’s where it is already installed?
    4. Is Bluebeam intended to serve all of S.F. ‘s government offices or only certain departments, such as DBI?
    5. How much is Bluebeam costing DBI and the City?
    6. Who is in charge of the Bluebeam installation?
    7. How long do the people in charge predict it will take to install Bluebeam at DBI?
    8. Why hasn’t there been any previous mention of Bluebeam in the news media?

    1. Bluebeam isn’t a “system” it’s a stand alone product that allows you to view and mark-up digital files, like Adobe, but geared towards AEC professionals. It is a minimal cost and no hands on installation – you simply download it. Cost can be easily found with a simple google search, but I’m sure there is different pricing for the city. The fact that DBI can review and process permits using bluebeam means they likely don’t need “a system” in order to start implementing more efficient practices. It sounds like it’s more of an old dog, new tricks issue and it just baffles my mind this kind of purposeful ineptitude is allowed to continue in a city known for its technology offerings.

    2. Bluebeam isn’t free to anyone. As a small firm we had to buy the software, we work on Mac’s at our office and guess what, Bluebeam is not compatible with Mac’s. So we had to buy more software to run Bluebeam.
      Bluebeam is glitchy and there is no notification system when a plan checker issues comments, so you just have to keep checking which is problematic when you have dozens of active projects going at any given time.

  17. Thank you Lydia Chávez and Mission Local for keeping the button on this urgent topic.

    What idiot would not have a “willingness to accept the fact that you have to put resources where there is need” back in September?
    Where was our Supervisor publicly demanding “willingness” and resources immediately?

    It was more than apparent even to the most casual observer that the largest (by far) fire was burning in The Mission and Bayview almost half a year ago as documented by Mission Local.

    But the unaccountable “experts” sent the fire engines elsewhere.
    Much to the detriment of the entire population of our city.

    I guess we’re getting somewhere now but this is one of the most infuriating failings of City government ever. Unfortunately it’s just par for the course. Nothing will change.

    1. Ack – this belonged as a comment to:
      “UCSF/Latino Task Force BART Covid-19 testing site appears to be the most effective in San Francisco”

      Too much coffee.

  18. What can we do to try and push for change here? Problems are so clear and dysfunction undeniable over so many years, so as residents of the city, what can we do to pressure or otherwise drive improvement? You’d hope the corruption scandals striking SF this pasty year+ would give some pressure to digitize and make this all more transparent processes….. This is gov’t ineptitude at its finest.

  19. Joe, thank you for being so persistent in investigating and reporting!

    another aspect is why are so many permits required in the first place? well, to ensure the safety of those who will be using the buildings/facilities/etc. which makes sense. but DBI (and other jurisdictions’ DBIs too) goes million of miles beyond that scope.
    “recently submitted electronically to permit a bathroom remodel in the South Bay”???
    why would you need a permit for bathroom remodel? in fact, here in SF you need a permit even if you just replace the floor tiling.
    we are making the joke in the restaurant construction industry that a permit is required to hang a picture.

  20. Dear Mr. Eskenazi:

    First, thank you for the reporting.

    Aside from the apples and oranges Truckee comparison, the mentally ill DBI customer (was there only one?), and the Accela debacle, you failed to mention the single person who was in charge of, in fact directing, the permit center before and during the shelter in place order. The electronic plan review system rollout was pushed and implemented hastily in a “see what sticks” fashion.
    Who appointed this person, why is there no accountability on their part, and where is this person now?
    Give credit where credit is due.

    While your insider may not have any good things to say about DBI management, it should be noted that those misdeeds should not reflect on the whole of staff members who were left holding the bag and trying to make things work.