Stop permitting favoritism

All permit applications are equal, but some are more equal than others.

With apologies to George Orwell, that was the thought that kept running through my mind as I read Honolulu Civil Beat’s new exposé on wait times at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting.

In Orwell’s 1945 classic “Animal Farm,” the many animals of a farm work together to overthrow their dictatorial human master. But once the revolution has passed, some of the pigs slowly seize power and change the last of the farm’s “seven commandments” from “All animals are created equal” to “Some animals are more equal than others.”

And that’s how it seems sometimes when trying to obtain a building permit in Hawaii.

It is common knowledge that Hawaii has some of the worst permitting delays in the nation, which contribute to the high cost of housing in our state. According to the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i, the average delay for a permit in Hawaii is three times the national sample mean.

Permit applicants in Hawaii sometimes have to wait more than a year for approval, and horror stories abound of people waiting years for approval of their renovation and construction projects.

A local acting group, The Actors Guild, even performed a play, titled “Building Permit,” to sold-out crowds about its five-year ordeal of trying to obtain a permit to renovate its new theater at the Dole Cannery in Iwilei. The play, which ran Sept. 15 through Oct. 1, resonated with a lot of people, and I can understand why.

The biggest surprise that came from Civil Beat’s investigation of Honolulu’s permitting woes, though, was not the tales of the long waits, but of the short ones. Reporter Christina Jedra found enormous disparities in wait times between similar projects, raising questions about why some permit applications get special treatment while others languish for months or years.

As expected, some of that special treatment was the result of bribery and corruption. Two architects who have been charged with bribery enjoyed quick permit turnarounds — one of them consistently received the speediest approvals, while the other typically received his approvals in less than half the time of similar projects.

But not all of the disparities can be explained by bribery. Jedra’s investigation revealed dozens of examples of applicants who consistently obtained their permits approved in record time.

For example, the average wait for a permit on a project that includes alterations with electrical and plumbing is 135 days, but Jedra found 20 applicants who consistently received their permits in half the time. Seven of those applicants, with 164 permit applications between them, each waited fewer than 50 days for approval.

Differences between plans and architects might explain some of the disparity, but Jedra’s research suggested it couldn’t account for the vast gulf between very similar projects.

She looked at four different applications of a single project type — a new building expected to cost about $850,000 with electrical, plumbing and solar. From fastest to slowest, the turnaround times in days were 45, 170, 217 and 345.

Why do some permits get stuck for a year and others fly through approvals?

Jedra found cases of some permits getting bumped to the front of the line after an inquiry from the mayor.

There is also the persistent impression that the permitting department rewards personal relationships and small niceties, such as fruit baskets and boxes of manapua — a cultural problem identified by law professor Randall Roth.

And of course, there is the basic fact that Honolulu’s permitting department is simply overwhelmed by its responsibilities.

Addressing the ethical issues should be straightforward. A commission convened last year by the Legislature identified ways in which the state could better prevent this kind of corruption and favoritism.

On a more practical level, simply speeding up wait times by reducing the burden on county permitting departments could cut the temptation of contractors, architects and others to curry favor with department officials.

The Honolulu City Council and mayor made progress on that front in June by approving Bill 56, which exempted certain small home projects and repairs from needing building permits. This will remove thousands of applications from the wait line, leaving permitting officials more time to focus on the remaining ones.

Currently, the Council is considering Bill 6, which would allow applications to be reviewed by third-party professionals. If approved, this too would help reduce delays.

Still, there is more that we can do, such as increase the value thresholds for permit exemptions, increase the number and types of projects that do not require permits, look to private contractors to help address the permitting backlogs, and create avenues for preapproved plans that require minimal review.

Reducing the permitting workload for both applicants and the DPP would eliminate our favoritism problem at its root. Then, all permit applications really would be equal.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Oct. 21, 2023. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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