Myrna Melgar Ahsha Safaí London Breed Department of Building Inspection Housing Site permit
When it comes to reforming the Department of Building Inspection, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Myrna Melgar have cars. But Mayor London Breed got a bus. Illustration by Chuqin Jiang

News broke earlier this month that members of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor were — independently and, it seems, adversarially — working on the wonky yet bewildering problem of builders’ interminable waits for site permits. This, too, was bewildering. The city needs two independent and competing efforts at site permit reform about as much as the moviegoing public needed two independent and competing films about long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. 

And yet, that happened: “Prefontaine in 1997 starring Jared Leto, and “Without Limits” in 1998 starring Billy Crudup.  

And this is happening, too: Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Myrna Melgar are crafting site-permitting legislation, and so is Mayor London Breed’s office. Nothing about this screams Highly Functional Government at Work: It’s not a great look for both sides to toil independently on the same problem for some time, either knowingly or unknowingly of the other’s efforts. Safaí also last week publicly acknowledged what every person in City Hall — and probably some of the animals — already knew: He’s considering a run for mayor. Politics and governing are not synonymous, and this will likely have a corrosive effect on this and other policy proposals. 

If you didn’t run track or grow up in the state of Oregon, Prefontaine was the James Dean of American distance runners, an enigmatic talent who died at 24 in an auto wreck. And, if you aren’t involved in building or development, a site permit is obtained after a review of preliminary drawings and documents and an accounting of life-safety and other big-picture factors. It does not enable you to start construction — there’s still all the not-preliminary documents to create, and so many other things — but you can’t get started without a site permit. Long story short: This is ostensibly a preliminary review, and you’re not supposed to expect the Spanish Inquisition. 

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but you should in San Francisco: It can take four to 18 months to obtain a site permit, a mind-boggling amount of time for what’s supposed to be a precursory step. It’s realities like this that led to the proliferation of permit expediters and influence peddlers to both legally and illegally goose the system. 

Clearly this is a problem. And nearly everyone I talked to — developers, builders, architects, city officials, power brokers, others — was, at least, pleased that efforts were being made to address a longstanding mess. Nobody wanted to discourage city government from trying to be more efficient and more proactive. 

But nobody I talked to was convinced that either or both of these parallel efforts would accomplish their ostensible raison d’être: speeding up housing development. 

“The elephant in the room is: Will this get more housing built for people in the city?” asks one longtime San Francisco developer. And his answer is no — or at least not in the near term. 

As he and other builders pointed out, developers are, at present, already not building scores of thousands of approved, entitled units. Speeding up the site permit process would be grand but, for the foreseeable future, that’d result in builders getting their entitlements vested on a site, and then not building. 

“The bigger problem is you cannot get anything financed,” the developer continued. “Nothing is getting built. I applaud them for their efforts, but it’s not going to result in housing getting built.” 

YouTube video
YouTube video

Last week, Department of Building Inspection director Patrick O’Riordan issued a memo to his workforce, noting that site permits do not require “detailed plan review of construction documents,” and such time-consuming matters should come later in the process. 

“It’s good to see this,” an architect tells me. “I’ve gotten some really bonkers, in-the-weeds comments on site permits that are not appropriate.” 

It’s indeed good, but it’s also confusing. O’Riordan penning a memo to explain this to his staff is a bit like Giants manager Gabe Kapler having to send written notice to his players that, after they hit the ball, they should run to first base. Also, if the team had a longstanding habit of running to third, you’d think the manager could’ve, and should’ve, addressed that years ago.  

But O’Riordan seems to sense which way the wind is blowing now, with both the supes and the mayor taking an interest. What’s more, the mayor’s proffered solution would be to remove much of the site-permitting process from DBI and place it with Planning, which hardly seems to be a vote of confidence. 

The Safaí/Melgar legislation currently exists as a set of bullet points, and is on its way to the City Attorney’s office for drafting. The mayor’s office has produced some slides and a PDF.

The mayor would, as noted, shunt much of the process to Planning while the supes, who hope to introduce their legislation on April 4, would keep things at DBI, strip down the criteria being reviewed for a site permit, and make reviews concurrent, rather than sequential.

So that’s where things stand now; a deep analysis of such preliminary proposals would probably be ill-advised before the normal give-and-take of the legislative process. Ideally, the best elements of these proposals would be synthesized. But, with Safaí having kinda-sorta thrown his hat into the ring, the politics jumps from regular to extra-strength. 

So be it. Regardless of anyone’s future job plans, one wonders if the mayor has the votes at the board. And Safaí’s co-sponsor, Melgar, isn’t just a former planning commissioner and building inspection commissioner who keenly understands the city’s development process. She’s also the chair of the Land-Use Committee. That seems relevant. 

What’s more relevant, however, is: Why is this being legislated? 

“You cannot legislate a solution to a problem that is fundamentally a management problem,” sums up a longtime government wrangler. “It requires good management.”

An excavator scoops up a large pile of debris and places it in a dumpster in this file photo from 2013.

Sometime around 1965 in New York, my father and uncle caught the Ave. J bus in the wee hours to go from my grandparents’ house on East 52nd St. to Uncle Steve’s parents’ house in Borough Park. They were the only guys on the bus, and the driver asked them to sit near him so he could have someone to talk to. 

He proceeded to drive like Steve McQueen, with little concern for stop signs or traffic signals. My father diplomatically asked the driver if he was concerned about triggering a collision. 

“Nah,” replied the driver while careening through Brooklyn. “They just got cars. I got a bus.” 

This is germane to our discussion because, when it comes to reforming the Department of Building Inspection, Safaí and Melgar just got cars. 

The mayor got a bus. 

Legislators tend to view solutions through a legislative lens, but this is not a legislative problem. The mayor does not need legislation to address shortfalls and scleroticism at DBI or any number of the city departments that work for her. She could address this administratively, tomorrow. And could have, on any of the prior 1,720 days since her swearing-in

So many different entities have a hand in the permitting process that this would appear to be the classic scenario in which a mayor can put everyone in a room, dictate a desired result, and demand everyone work together to make that result a reality. 

Frankly, it’s hard to think of any other solution that would work. 

“If it’s a priority for the mayor to speed up housing production, what I would do is gather every head of a department that touches the building process in the big City Hall conference room in room No. 201; Willie Brown used to have his staff meetings there,” says a former government hand. 

He’d subject them to these meetings every week. There’d be tickers up on the screen, and color coding, and a running list of every project above a certain threshold. And everyone would be asked why Project A was behind schedule, or Project B was lagging. And they’d all point fingers at each other. 

“And then you just resolve it. That’s what you have to do. That’s Management 101.”

It warrants mentioning at this point, that none of these proffered solutions would help mom ‘n’ pop overwhelmed by the requirements to put a new set of windows on their family home. The cavalry ain’t coming to help ordinary voters to navigate a process so labyrinthine it’s only missing a minotaur: “This doesn’t have anything to do with workaday San Franciscans,” affirms a longtime building inspector. 

And once you fix the site-permitting process, then there’s all the rest of the permits to deal with. Connecting a building to utility systems, for example, can take years. “It is unreal how long it takes to get permits in San Francisco,” fumes a development professional. “Un-fucking-real.”

That’s a problem. But it’s not a legislative problem. And all the legislation in the world — without limits — won’t fix it.

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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.

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    1. I’m betting you associate with City Planning, me, I’m a miserable homeowner in this town six years into building a trophy house on an empty lot that I can’t afford to live in. Six years…..and not even entitled. I’ll be dead before it is built at this rate. Rick P. wanna be Rich P.

  1. ‘Longtime San Francisco developer’ hit the building nail on the head, “The bigger problem is you cannot get anything financed.” Solution? Get ‘to big to fail’ banks to finance city construction fees while providing normal short-term construction loans. City wins (getting outrageous construction fees); builders win (getting normalized financing); city residents win (getting new housing of all types).

  2. Can I make a suggestion?
    Instead of the usual he said she said thing.
    Pick up you note book go to DBI. Start where everyone starts and follow the process.
    Of course you cannot follow the intake projects but one might think you would get an idea of how this works or doesn’t work.
    IMO I think if you really cared and looked at the process objectively you would be surprised.
    The request is not follow 1 project like the mayor did the other day and stand up in front of all her cronies to say what a great job DBI has done.
    It’s a public place I don’t believe you need to ask permission to watch.
    Because of the talking to the media is not allowed you will need to just observe.
    Take it in and write an article. Talk to the applicant, don’t talk to the city worker.
    Spend some time there. Investigate, use a couple days , really watch the process.
    I think looking at it objectively you will be surprised.
    Or is this too much to ask a reporter?
    Today’s media loves the knee jerk shocking story.
    Try something different, tell the truth, whomever the truth falls upon so be it.

    1. Pedro — 

      Thanks for the advice. I probably talked to 20 people for this story and went over statistics and documents going back 20 years. But, yes, showing up at 49 S. Van Ness unannounced and watching without talking to people would’ve been another way to do it.



  3. Bottom line is no housing is getting built regardless of permits, regardless of affordable % required etc. As long as interest rates and construction costs are as high as they are, it will not pencil out to build here.
    But having the Mayor and BOS work against each other is just annoying as hell, even if par for the course.

    1. If the City spent half the effort in charging and collecting punishing building fees on pressuring banks to make normalized short term construction loans we’d be in a different place right now. Force the banks to pay punitive fees on a real threat of creating our own bank.

  4. Joe,

    Fabulous piece.

    It must be something in the Hetch-Hetchy water.

    This morning I looked out my window at 14th and Valencia and noted that the corner trash can still had not been emptied and there was trash and garbage in the bike lanes and I put on my orange vest and Clemson hat and cleaned it all up and bagged the stuff and pulled the garbage can out of the unlocked concrte box and cleaned all the junk around it and by a stroke of luck …

    Here comes a lady pushing a big round trash can in the bike lane coming toward me and I thank, wadda break, these two bags I just picked out of the gutter for a block and a half will fit in there.


    Said that once the trash got on the sidewalk that it was the City’s problem and she was a volunteer for some other group and she pushed her empty barrel on past the corner light moving on down the gutter I’d just cleaned.

    So, SF thinking is that she has such a narrow view of her job that if she’d come an hour earlier before I’d picked the stuff up and put it in two orange bags … she’d have picked the stuff up.

    Once the stuff was bagged and on the curb …

    Why does this remind me of DBI ?

    Niners just signed a 6’7″ 335 long haired and bearded Offensive Tackle starter from Colts and Lombardi is leary.


    “Call 311.” she said

  5. I’d imagine that they’re all rushing to get rules in place during an economic downturn, again, like they did in 2008, so that when the business cycle turns up, that developers will get windfalls.

    Can’t these terms be indexed to the economy, counter cyclically, so that the regs loosen when the economy is slack in bust and tighten up when it roars back in a boom?

    Any efforts to expedite permitting means a profitable windfall for developers and lenders. What is the City going to do to claw back those windfalls? Current talk during the downturn is to relieve developers of inclusionary burdens, the bait that upzonings were sold on.

    How about clawing back these give-aways in the form of more affordable housing?

    1. Marcos,

      An aside that shocked and angered me at the time and that seems cool to add for what is now humor to me …

      Under ‘Great Moments in SF RE Class Warfare’ …

      Supervisor Mark Leno invents concept of …

      ‘Offsite Inclusionary Housing’

      Which allowed the developers to build and house lower-income tenants anywhere in the City other than the original development site.

      The Reverend Arnold Townsend waxed poetic that the offsite units could be built in the parking lots of Bayview churches whose congregations had evaporated under the pressures of gentrification.

      The good Reverend Townsend (you might recall that he is still quite active and actually skillfully guided our latest every Ten Years, Redistricting Plan) …

      Reverend Townsend responded to a demand by Supervisor Jake McGoldrick that the Offsite units be of same quality construction as the Onsite Market Rate units …

      He told Jake that poor Black people didn’t need anything that fancy and were used to living close together.

      You can’t make this stuff up.

      I know cause I’ve tried and Reality is more Bold.

      Go Niners !!


  6. The political dimension here appears to be supes in pursuit of rigging up a light that shines on them as being part of the solution. Look what .we. did to solve housing.

  7. “none of these proffered solutions would help mom ‘n’ pop overwhelmed by the requirements to put a new set of windows on their family home. ”

    True but of course mom ‘n’ pop can just replace the windows without bothering with a permit. Same if replacing a bathroom or kitchen. But a builder of a new home cannot get away with doing that.

    1. not so. the one thing that DBI is good at is collecting fees and fining people who don’t get permits. The entire department is focused on one thing, and one thing only: collecting fees.

      1. It is those DBI fees that drive folks to not get permits. DBI charged me 2 grand for the permits for my kitchen remodel. Plus an uplift in Prop 13 cost basis as well.

        If the work is all indoors then odds are good that DBI will never know about it. And all those in-laws carved out of garages in the Sunset were done without permits, and DBI turns a blind eye.