Honolulu’s Building Permit Delays: A ‘Nightmare’ Decades In The Making
Construction industry professionals say it’s taking longer than ever to get a permit in Honolulu. The delays disrupt lives and put a drag on the economy.
Brad Espedal remembers the good old days.
Back in the 1970s, when he was just starting out in Honolulu’s construction industry, he could walk into the county permitting office and get permission to build the same day.
He just needed to route the paper plans from division to division and collect signatures. If there was an issue with the plans, a seasoned plans examiner would point it out and allow him to fix it on the spot, Espedal said.
“If you wanted to get your permit expedited, you’d walk it through and you’d sit there and wait 45 minutes for the plans examiner, and you got his approval or not,” Espedal said.
Over time though, Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting fell behind. The knowledgeable oldtimers retired, and the city struggled to replace them. Employees who did come on board were not adequately trained and struggled to keep up with ever-changing regulations. Technology, which promised to speed things up, instead removed the personal interactions that allowed for quick corrections to minor problems.
The number of applications hasn’t changed much over the years. But ultimately, the department was accepting thousands more applications per year than it could review, leading to a backlog that compounded every year. A backup of 2,500 permits in 2010 ballooned to about 7,000 in 2020. By 2022, the permit pileup was nearing 12,000 applications, according to the department’s data.
Making matters worse, the pandemic exacerbated understaffing and necessitated even more distance between the department and applicants. And some say the department clammed up even more after the criminal indictment of five of its employees for bribery in 2021. Some applicants believe remaining employees became afraid of being accused of favoritism.
“That personal interaction is gone,” Espedal said.
Wait times that used to be days or weeks have become months and years. Longtime construction professionals interviewed by Civil Beat said the system is in the worst shape they’ve ever seen it. They say the delays that occurred in the last year are unprecedented.
“It’s truly a nightmare,” said Jeffrey Durham, the former CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Hawaii.
As of November of last year, the median residential permitting time was 330 days. Commercial jobs were at a median of 420 days.
Recently, the department has shared updated data indicating median review time has eased significantly, albeit still painfully long.
As of October, there was a six-month average wait time for DPP’s approval on residential jobs, and commercial projects dragged on for a median of nearly a year, according to data shared with the Honolulu City Council.
But the numbers may be skewed.
The department has been prioritizing the approval of solar panel applications, which are relatively quick and easy. An average including the rapid approval of those projects can obscure long processing times at the other end of the spectrum.
A Civil Beat review of residential projects submitted in the first six months of this year, for example, shows many of the quickest turnarounds were for photovoltaic permits. Meanwhile, a third of the applications submitted in that time period were still waiting for approval as of early October. Projects from 2022, 2021 and earlier are also pending.
Several recently approved projects had been waiting for years.
One of them was a $1,500 upgrade to a residential electrical meter that took nearly two years. Of that time, more than a year was spent in so-called “prescreen,” a superficial check for formatting issues before the case proceeds to building code review.
This is all to say the department’s claims of improvement are not yet being felt by many community members. As of last week, plans examiners were telling applicants they’re working on plans that were submitted in June and July.
“To me, it’s a smoke and mirrors thing,” Espedal said.
In an interview, DPP Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna acknowledged the lower numbers don't reflect reality for many people.
"We're going to get that number down, but it's going to take time," she said.
The holdup has been maddening for Honolulu homeowners, businesses and construction professionals whose hands are tied even as they watch the cost of their projects increase with each passing day.
Construction delays can interfere with people’s lives in profound ways, postponing home additions that would allow multigenerational families to live together and split expenses and putting off business expansions that would allow for increased revenue.
One local religious institution had to cancel the construction of a nearly $6 million church because of the delays. By the time the project was approved, Espedal said, prices had soared past the point they could afford.
“It was devastating,” Espedal said.
There are economic implications as well. The permits DPP does manage to approve every year represent billions of dollars of development, city data shows. Leaving thousands of projects in the lurch year after year holds up untold millions of dollars in revenue for the construction industry.
For people to wait more than a year for a permit is “criminal,” Durham said.
“It affects people’s livelihood,” he said.
“The price of things go up. Now plywood is $10 a sheet more expensive, or drywall, or copper pipe, or wire. Everything goes up. Especially with today’s inflation. So who takes the hit? The contractor? The owner? Whose fault is it? The city’s. Because they didn’t issue the permits because they’re unable to do their job.”
Contractors say DPP’s slow pace limits their ability to take on new work because they only get paid in full upon a project’s completion. Limiting their number of contracts restricts the number of people they’re able to hire. That’s not to mention the lost tax revenue those higher-valued buildings would generate, plus the permit fees that go directly to DPP itself.
So how did it get so bad?
A Perfect Storm
The DPP disaster didn’t happen overnight.
According to Takeuchi Apuna, who has been in the job for over a year now, the department’s current woes are the culmination of several factors over many years.
The One Stop Permit Center in the Fasi municipal building, launched during Mayor Jeremy Harris’s administration, was meant to consolidate a process that used to require visits to several departments. But it may have had a negative effect, funneling applications into a single bottleneck.
And leadership decisions over several administrations allowed that chokepoint to become severely understaffed, poorly trained, technologically obsolete, and inundated with burdensome and rapidly evolving regulations, Takeuchi Apuna said.
One of DPP’s biggest problems is hiring and retention, and on a related note, pay. An entry-level building plans examiner makes roughly between $40,000 to $60,000. Pay for most senior examiners tops out at around $87,000. Those who come from an architectural or engineering background can make more money, and get yelled at less frequently, working in the private sector.
Engineers can likely make $20,000 to $50,000 more at private firms, Takeuchi Apuna said.
Indeed, the department currently has 93 vacancies – a 23% vacancy rate. And traditionally, there has been no succession planning.
“When people leave, they take institutional knowledge with them,” Durham said.
The rate of turnover is high. In the last year, the department hired 76 people but lost 41. Almost half left for other government agencies.
“It’s a new face every couple of months,” said Jayna Yeager, who operates Oahu Permits LLC.
Getting new employees up to speed is a challenge. Some have only a high school diploma, according to Takeuchi Apuna. Many contractors have complained about nonsensical comments on their architectural plans written by examiners with little technical know-how.
“There is a lack of basic skills,” Takeuchi Apuna acknowledged in remarks to business leaders earlier this year.
Adding to the struggle is a building code that gets more complex every few years. In particular, the spike in DPP’s backlog around 2017 seems to overlap with an increase in building-related legislation from the Honolulu City Council, Takeuchi Apuna has observed.
Between 2016 and 2020, city lawmakers passed an influx of new rules on accessory dwelling units, flood areas, monster homes and other measures. One 2017 bill on stormwater quality required DPP to establish a new branch for those reviews.
“That obviously added much more time to the building permit process,” Takeuchi Apuna said. “Our staff needs to get up to date, understand what the ordinances mean and understand how it affects their review.”
Justin Tyndall, an economist and University of Hawaii professor, said concerns about overregulation are valid. In a paper published last year, Tyndall and his colleagues found Hawaii's rules-heavy environment drives up the cost of housing and is associated with longer permitting times than other states.
"We are among the most stringently regulated states in the U.S," he said. "The number of approvals we have to receive and meetings we have to go through, forms we have to fill out, are larger here. So, the legal system we've set up to build housing makes the process take a lot longer and be more costly."
Adding to the struggle, Honolulu's permitting process relies on a computer system called POSSE, which is over 20 years old and requires a lot of manual input, Takeuchi Apuna said. Output is limited. The department can’t even pull data from the system to analyze chokepoints; staff have to contact the software company to do it for them.
“What that boils down to is, over time, I don’t think there was a lot of oversight of management to anticipate that ‘Oh we need more people,’ or ‘We need to update our technology.’ Are we efficient? Are we successful? What do we need in order to do our jobs well and provide a service to the public?” Takeuchi Apuna said.
Other factors have played a role too. A flood of solar permit applications beginning around 2012, a shutdown of appointments during the pandemic and the transition to an electronic system for residential plans in 2021 created bumps in the road. Losing two supervisors in the bribery scandal was an additional blow.
“When we lost them, it was quite a void,” the director said.
The system experienced further slowdowns last year when DPP detected problems in its third-party review system, in which outside professionals review plans to speed up the process. DPP employees essentially stopped reviewing permit applications for a time and focused solely on audits to catch reviewers improperly approving projects that were not code-compliant, according to Takeuchi Apuna.
In the grand scheme of permit delays, some of the blame also falls at the feet of the applicant, Takeuchi Apuna said. Poor quality plans slow things down.
“It’s not everyone, but a lot of the time spent in permitting is a back and forth between our staff and the applicant, trying to figure out ‘This is the problem. You need to fix this,’ and it comes back and sometimes they don't fix it,” she said. “So that takes some time.”
The Path Forward
A year into Takeuchi Apuna’s tenure, there are signs of hope.
The city increased the department’s budget by 33% last year and has added about 50 positions in the last two years. However, since many of the jobs remain unfilled, DPP is planning to hire an outside company that can assist with building code review, at least temporarily to get the backlog under control. Takeuchi Apuna said a solicitation for the job may be posted as soon as next month.
The new funding is also being put to work in other ways.
DPP has already hired a consultant, Accuity, to help establish standard operating procedures. Until now, there haven't been any, the director said.
Technology upgrades are being rolled out.
Automation seems to be helping. A year ago, Honolulu permit applicants were waiting an average of six months in prescreen. As of October, DPP has that down to five days with the help of an automated “bot” that scans plans for formatting errors.
There’s been an adjustment period. The new system has been frustrating for some who say drawings that are off by as little as a sixteenth of an inch can get kicked back to the end of the line, but with time, applicants are learning the bot’s quirks.
Now the bulk of the permitting wait has shifted to the important part – code review – which is now taking longer. A year ago, code review took three months for residential projects, according to DPP’s data. As of October, it’s taking longer than five. For commercial projects, code review went from six months to 10 months.
DPP is also working to procure new software to replace POSSE, Takeuchi Apuna said. A company has been tentatively chosen, but DPP is doing its due diligence before formally hiring them.
To address the concerns of contractors and property owners, DPP has also updated its website to include a tab for metrics on each permit. Members of the public can see where in the process a particular permit is, and how its timing stacks up against the average.
DPP is also sharing more information on its website about its expectations and what applicants need to provide to get their plans approved.
If permit applicants still have questions, starting Dec. 15, employees with the Department of Customer Services will be on hand to answer them over the phone. Those staffers, who typically work in the city's motor vehicle division, will be trained to answer frequently asked questions, Takeuchi Apuna said.
Bill 56, introduced by City Council member Andria Tupola, may provide some relief, at least for smaller projects. Passed last year, the legislation raised the monetary threshold for repairs that require a permit from $5,000 to $10,000.
It also allows certain small projects to bypass DPP, including fences shorter than six feet, the paving of walkways on private property, and the basic remodeling of an interior.
And in November, Mayor Blangiardi signed into law Bill 6, which creates a temporary self-certification program.
Under the law, projects could be approved by a licensed and insured design professional instead of DPP. But use of the program will be limited. It’s only an option for affordable housing rental projects, interior renovations to commercial tenant buildings and residential jobs on lands managed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
For Takeuchi Apuna, the hope is all these changes together will make a difference.
"I think we’re making progress, but realizing it’s going to take time to make a significant, major improvement," she said.