How constructing increase, staffing shortages overwhelmed North Texas cities, particularly Dallas


ADDISON — The pandemic made it critical for cities to get digital permitting systems fully up and running to meet the needs of developers and builders.

And just after the start of the pandemic, the region saw record numbers of home construction starts that put those new systems to the test.

Development leaders representing Dallas, Irving, Celina and Denton discussed the challenges they faced in getting projects approved over the last three years during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Dallas Builders Association in Addison.

“We were forced to become more effective, more efficient, and city leadership really didn’t have a choice in that,” said Scott McDonald, director of development services for the city of Denton.

Irving had a digital system in place, but city staff realized they needed something better, so they moved to newer software in a transition that went seamlessly, said Wayne Snell, the city’s director of inspections.

“Now we’re running a lot faster,” Snell said. “We’re able to move things through the process. We’re able to communicate with other departments in a very efficient manner.”

Celina’s development process has been digital since 2008, but as the city grew rapidly during the pandemic, staff got “faster and better” at handling permits, said Dustin McAfee, the city’s executive director of development services.

“We’re paperless and have been for a number of years,” McAfee said. “COVID allowed Celina just to kind of fine-tune its processes and get better at what we do. I could not imagine it being paper trying to transition to a more digital age during COVID. To me, that would be very painful and very challenging to experience.”

Troubles in Dallas

With that, the panel’s moderator, Dallas Builders Association executive director Phil Crone, turned to Sam Eskander, assistant director of land development for the city of Dallas, where delays in approval to build and rebuild have persisted for years.

“Talking about being painful, that’s what we went through,” Eskander said. “Prior to COVID, everything was submitted hard copy, paper submittals.”

Eskander said developers and contractors used to line up outside the door starting at 4 a.m. to get permits.

“It kind of looked like Best Buy on Black Friday,” he said. “I mean, literally, the line wrapped around the building, waiting to get a permit, hoping that they could get a same-day permit.”

When the pandemic started, the city was already working with a software company called ProjectDox to track and process permits. Eskander said the city had to put that into full force, even though it wasn’t ready.

“We just had to make it work,” he said, adding that the switch made it impossible for developers to get a same-day permit. “That really hurt a lot of people.”

After COVID, the city made a lot of improvements, Eskander said, including bringing back same-day permits when applicants schedule an appointment, creating new teams to help the development community and reducing permit review times. The average turnaround time for residential permits in January was three business days, he said.

Crone, the moderator, said in an email that everybody he knows who has sought a permit in Dallas recently has been able to get it within two weeks, in part due to the improvements the city has made, but also because of the significant reduction in activity due to the correction in the housing market.

“Sam and the other department leaders that have shown empathy and jumped into the problem, they’ve owned it, they empathize with it, and they’ve done the best that they can to work on it,” Crone said at the event. “And we still have certainly a long way to go, but that’s contributed to a lot of the improvements that we’ve seen.”

Eskander brought up an example of dysfunction in Dallas’ system. Builders recently have faced issues surrounding water infrastructure. They may find out only during construction that a site is missing fire hydrants or a water line, when city staff is supposed to catch such issues before permits are issued, he said.

“There are builders that catch that during their due diligence, and there are other builders that catch that while they’re in the middle of construction,” he said. “Due to staff turnover, new staff was not trained and doesn’t understand, doesn’t know what to look for.”

Eskander said his department has been setting up meetings with the water utilities, code compliance, public works and planning and city attorney’s offices to bring up issues his department and builders are facing and get a better understanding of how to solve problems.

“Every time your issues are brought to our attention, we do bring it up to them,” Eskander said. “We do discuss. We try to figure out solutions to these problems so that they don’t happen again.”

In a market with heightened interest rates and construction costs, Crone said it’s important for builders and developers to know what kind of costs and delays they’ll be facing at the city level before a project begins.

“It has been frustrating with builders and developers almost playing, as I’ve characterized it, ‘infrastructure roulette,’ or almost like spinning a Wheel of Fortune wheel because some will get caught and land on bankruptcy, and others will get through and not have any issues,” he said.

In a separate panel of homebuilders and developers, Adam Auensen of Dallas-based apartment builder Tonti Properties said Dallas’ permitting speed could be worse.

“I’ll defend Dallas and their permit turnaround timeline because we’re building in the East Coast,” Auensen said. “We just got a standalone swimming pool permit nine months after submitting for it at a property outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Hiring challenges

City departments also have faced challenges in recruiting staff to help lighten the load. McDonald said consulting firms in the private sector are creating immense pressure on city governments in hiring, “gobbling up everyone that they can.”

“It’s not as attractive to go to municipal government, so we find ourselves having to ultimately recruit green, and build them, so having an environment where we can foster the training, where we can expand the knowledge base,” he said.

Denton’s McDonald said his city now offers a flexible hybrid schedule as the younger, newer demographic looking for jobs has a different mindset on work.

“Creating an environment that allows people to be flexible in their schedule, finding a work-life balance is critical,” he said.

Dallas also has had hiring difficulties, Eskander said.

“We have done numerous job fairs. We’ve gone to universities with business cards ready to hand out and recruit,” he said. “It took us eight months to finally get fully staffed on the residential side.”

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