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Why Is San Francisco’s Permitting Process So Fiercely Hellish?

Abandon hope, all ye who apply here.


This story is part of our April 2016 cover story “The City Report Card,” a 24-part assessment of the true state of San Francisco. We’ll be posting new grades daily on Click here to read other status reports on policing, housing, schools, parks, pot dispensaries, the mayor, and more.

Getting a building
or business permit in San Francisco can be one of the most confusing processes you will ever experience. The Department of Building Inspection tells you so, in those exact words, in the opening sentence of its booklet Getting a City Permit.

There are 10 different city agencies involved in the permitting process. There are 17 different tables for calculating fees. Nationwide, the average permit time from application to acceptance is about 80 days, according to a World Bank Group database. It can take up to 180 days just to do neighborhood notification in San Francisco.

In 2014, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation conducted a study ranking the user-friendliness of the permitting process in 10 major U.S. cities. St. Louis got a perfect score of 100; L.A. got an 83, and New York City a 67. San Francisco’s score was zero. The hypothetical permit cost $108,000, $22,000 more than in the next-most-expensive city (L.A.) and nearly 11 times more than in the cheapest (Dallas).

Despite this, the number of people entering our permit purgatory keeps increasing. In 2013–14, the latest fiscal year for which data are available, the city issued 65,776 permits, up from 53,000 in 2010–11. Federal figures show that only a few thousand of these each year are for new buildings. Most are for small projects that would automatically be legal in, say, Oakland—like a six-foot-tall fence. Even a new garage door requires a permit. 

Why do we love permitting so much? Lily Madjus Wu, spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection, points out that because we’re a dense city with a “unique topography” and an active fault, the city monitors even minor construction closely. The fees generated by all those permits play a role, too. Plus, San Franciscans have always been finicky about what gets built here. But do we realize how much it costs us?

Grade: D-

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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