New housing construction is seen from an alley in San Diego's North Park neighborhood, Nov. 29, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego’s severely understaffed building department will get some outside help to speed up the permit process and clear a backlog of applications.

The City Council agreed earlier this week to pay two private companies $2.5 million each to help review permit applications on new development over the next two years. This follows an analysis released in November that tried to explain why the city is so “woefully off pace” from meeting housing production goals.

Why this matters

How to fix San Diego’s housing shortage is a problem that has dogged city leaders for years. City leaders decided to bring in outside help.

It can take the better part of a year or more for San Diego’s Development Services Department to issue relatively straightforward housing permits, according to industry experts. Officials anticipate the two companies, NV5 and Interwest Consulting Group, will be able to start chipping away at those delays within the next couple weeks.

“We cannot effectively address our housing and homelessness crisis without building more housing,” City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said in a statement. “Approving workforce support for the Development Services Department is one of the tools we must use to allow for cheaper and faster production of homes to meaningfully improve housing availability and affordability.”

A regional housing study projected San Diego will need more than 13,500 new housing units every year to meet the demand of all income levels by the end of the decade. Last year, the city only authorized construction on roughly a third of that. 

Half of San Diego’s housing supply are rental units and less than 1% are vacant, records show. The lack of availability has driven up rents by 15%, according to a study from the Southern California Rental Housing Association.

It’s become such a problem that, during the State of the City address last month, Mayor Todd Gloria announced an executive order directing staff to review and approve housing projects exclusive to low-income residents within 30 days, and to continue filling vacant positions dedicated to the permit review process.

A person skates in front of new construction on 30th Street in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, Nov. 29, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A unanimous City Council on Monday, with Councilmember Jennifer Campbell absent, provided support to help a burned-out building department meet those demands and tackle a backlog of 2,700 applications.

The city cannot allow delays to continue while the building department works to fill more than 100 vacancies, Councilmember Vivian Moreno said in a statement.

“This will not only help process permits faster, but will help support the existing employees who currently have unrealistic workloads,” she said.

But the city shouldn’t get in the habit of extending these two-year contracts, Moreno said, and she asked building department staff to update the budget committee on the plan to actually fill the vacancies.

Officials were hoping to fill 39 positions dedicated to permit review by the end of January, but they still have 18 more to go. The hiring process and bringing new staff up to speed takes months, said Elyse Lowe, director of development services. 

That’s why this additional support is so crucial, because the companies have the ability and expertise to help make a dramatic impact on the backlog, while freeing up city staff to focus on housing projects and hiring. This action has been in the works for some time, Lowe said, and the companies have already been assisting the city in other areas. 

But Lowe said she wanted to be clear about one thing: “It’s not just all about throwing bodies at a problem. We are really trying to deliver systemic solutions.”

In November, the city’s independent budget analyst issued a 22-page report that outlined barriers to home construction and suggested policy recommendations to remove them. 

The report included challenges facing the city’s planning and economic development departments, as well as the San Diego Housing Commission. But the city’s “one-stop shop” for building permits, development services, presented multiple hurdles to new housing. The report recommended technology upgrades and a complete redesign of the permitting process to improve efficiency.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...