Streamline permitting process to reduce wait times, favoritism
by Keli'i Akina, Ph.D., President/CEO, Grassroot Institute, (Originally published in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle on Nov. 5, 2023.)
Anyone wanting to renovate, repair, or build a home in Honolulu can typically expect to wait months or even years before being issued a permit.
The situation has become so bad that The Actors Guild, a local acting group, produced a play based on their five-year ordeal of trying to get a permit to renovate their theater at Dole Cannery.
The play, titled “Building Permit” ran for two weeks to sold-out crowds — proof that the public really identified with the topic.
But what if I told you that the wait for a permit isn’t always measured in months or years? In fact, for some favored parties, there is no backlog or delay. They get their permits in a matter of days or weeks.
It might not seem possible. It doesn’t seem fair. But it’s true.
A new report from Honolulu Civil Beat has exposed the depth of the favoritism problem at the Honolulu Department of Permitting. Reporter Christina Jedra looked at the data and found significant disparities in permit wait times, even between very similar projects.
The most obvious explanation for abbreviated wait times is corruption. In fact, two architects recently charged with bribery received consistently speedy approvals. Some of those permits came in less than half the time required for similar projects to get approved.
However, corruption doesn’t fully explain the discrepancies in wait time. Jedra uncovered dozens of applicants who consistently received their permits in record time.
For example, a permit for a project that includes alterations to electrical and plumbing usually takes 135 days.
However, Jedra located 20 applicants who consistently obtained their permits in half that time. Seven of them — with 164 applications between them — received their permits in less than 50 days.
One could claim that differences in the applications or architects are a reason for the different wait times.
But that doesn’t explain how four substantially similar projects — new buildings with electrical, plumbing, and solar costing approximately $850,000 — ended up with wait times that varied from as little as 45 to as many as 345 days.
What explains the difference?
In some cases, a call from the mayor’s office hurried things along. In others, it was an existing personal relationship with department staff or small niceties such as boxes of manapua.
Nor can we ignore the fact that the department is simply overwhelmed by its responsibilities.
Ethical issues can be addressed with reforms like those proposed by the Foley Commission, but we must also consider ways to speed up the permitting process and remove the temptation to favor some applications over others.
The Honolulu City Council has already passed Bill 56, which exempts certain small projects and repairs, thereby reducing some of the backlog. It currently is considering Bill 6, which would help reduce delays by allowing third parties to review applications.
Still, we can do more to streamline the permitting process, such as increasing the value threshold for permit exemptions, further reducing the number of projects that require permits, employing private contractors to help reduce the backlog and creating avenues for pre-approved plans that require minimal review.
We must make the permitting process fair again. It is the only way to shorten wait times, reduce the stress on the department and kill permitting favoritism at its source.