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.
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.
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.
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?
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.