Opinion: Why Does Housing Take So Long to Build?

A much-discussed course of action to bring housing affordability to our area is to create more housing. And if we are to build more housing, why does it take so long? While serving on the San Jose City Council’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Building & Planning, I learned firsthand how bureaucracy negatively impacts the timeline on housing production. Further slowing the timelines, builders are often faced with shortages in city staffing, coupled with less experienced staff members left to untangle multi-jurisdictional requirements for building plan submissions.

Even when projects fall within San Jose's legal jurisdiction, they are held up by demands from multiple departments that may not be communicating as often as they should. Most developers of significant-sized projects I talked to agree that the process of getting building permits often takes more than one year and, in some cases, requires high-priced consultants to help move the project through all the legal hurdles.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tacked on additional time delays, as city staff have switched to remote working conditions, hindering inter-departmental coordination.

I spoke to experienced San Jose developer Michael Van Every, CEO of Republic Urban Properties. When questioned about the city of San Jose’s process, Van Every shared, “It has always been difficult to get final building permits from San Jose. With city employees working remotely, it has nearly doubled the time to get administrative permits like final maps and building permits. Building and fire inspections are also an issue.”

If you are trying to conduct business during this time you need patience.

Slowing down the process even further, in areas where one would assume dense buildings should be fast-tracked through the approval process, developers are running into all kinds of new hurdles because of new legislation on “vehicle miles traveled.” Under State Senate Bill 743, which passed in 2018, projects are required to be reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to evaluate the transportation impacts of new developments in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than increased traffic congestion. While this may sound like a great way to tax housing developments that cause an increase in travel on our roads and highways, city planning departments and councils are left to define how to implement this law.

The theory is that projects built further away from “downtown” job centers will pay a higher cost to mitigate their impact. However, in reality, even projects that sit directly on rail stations are being assessed higher fees and requirements since they are not located in “downtown.” These costs and delays make the projects unfeasible, delaying the development of housing until the economics can justify the costs.

One such project that was working its way through the approval process is a 200+ unit high-density housing project on an underutilized VTA parking Lot on Blossom Hill Road—a project in my old district. Although the developer was approved by the VTA board, the project has faced changing fee structures, interdepartmental confusion and multi-jurisdictional requirements by the city of San Jose, Caltrans and Santa Clara County. Even with expensive consultants to clear the governmental log jams, this project has yet to break ground after two years of untangling bureaucracy.

In some California cities, such as Fairfield, lawmakers recognized that they needed to do something to streamline these hurdles in order to get developers to build. City staff pre-cleared environmental requirements, such as CEQA, in areas where the city wanted developers to build and streamlined their permitting process to reduce time and complexity. As a result, a developer like Melanie Griswald, who conducts business in multiple cities, is able to go through the permitting process in half the time, as compared to cities where CEQA pre-clearance is not available.

If local cities are really serious about increasing housing supply, we need to environmentally pre-clear areas we want developed, reduce fees and create multi-jurisdictional review committees to help speed along the process of construction.

Johnny Khamis is a former San Jose councilmember who is currently running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors District 1 seat. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

16 Comments

  1. Really Mr. Khamis – your strategy to get elected is to blame hard working public servants who have been grinding away this past year in 1 bedroom apartments? That’s a slap in the face of a group who’s doing more for SJ that you are. This this such an old Republican chestnut – Big Government is the problem. And no, I don’t work in government.

    News Flash: The single largest problem in getting housing build is NIMBY obstructionists. Period. Look no further than your own district in west SJ and their resistance to ANY new housing or change (new CVS). A true leader would fix that problem first then step-up to a larger leadership role.

  2. Public servants is pretty rich, don’t you think?

    Sam Liccardo and Laurie Smith are such dedicated and hard working examples.

  3. Yes, Ted is correct

    no NIMBY like a stacked deck of “progressive” politicos passing every market distorting obstacle imaginable and then some

    goodness you people are blind

  4. A true leader, as opposed to a neoliberal shill for property owners and real estate developers, would state the obvious: acquiring and renovating existing housing/structures and building public housing on public land are the most effective, long-term solutions to housing affordability and houselessness. The pandemic-era experience with Project Homekey has shown that state and county governments can produce housing units (in this case in multi-unit structures) for under $200,000 per door and can do so in a relatively short period of time (https://sanjosespotlight.com/san-jose-makes-dent-in-low-income-housing-shortage-with-grants-developments/#comment-24045). San Jose State University (SJSU) has shown us another government entity can produce high quality multi-unit housing structures for about $315,000 per door (https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/big-city-mayors-ask-lawmakers-for-1-billion-for-housing/#comment-1703090)

    A true leader would know that these are some of the better examples of the power of the public sector to directly provide relatively low-cost housing to those who need it. By cutting out the middlemen, i.e. profit-seeking real estate developer and speculators, scaled public housing built on public land is cost-efficient, making it affordable to those of modest means. Denser housing also allows for more efficient public transport and the intelligent “localization” of other vital services–including public services–within walking distances (https://sanjosespotlight.com/a-history-of-complicity-business-group-explores-how-to-help-the-housing-crisis/#comment-44121).

    Santa Clara County, as an example, could immediately designate some of its publicly-owned parcels–or acquire such parcels–for high-density, publicly-owned and operated housing. They could then contact the Facilities Development and Operations Departments of SJSU for advice and guidance on planning and building affordable housing on public lands. COVID-19 state and federal housing assistance money could and should be used to bolster and accelerate such projects, rather than merely rental assistance projects.

    But Mr. Khamis is too busy carrying water for real estate developers. You will note that his whole piece is written from the point of view of such developers, not from the stance of the houseless or the housing burdened in our county, nor from the point of view of social justice and equity (https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/scc-supes-set-to-approve-350m-in-bonds-for-affordable-housing/#comment-1701280). Santa Clara County voters will have to find real leadership elsewhere.

  5. Whenever someone says “Government needs to be held accountable”, people screech, “blame hard working public servants” why don’t you. Well I guess if the shoe fits, wear it.
    Let’s face it, our state, county, and city are (and have been) run by one party for a very long time, and things are really MESSED up. So all the progressive ideas and sympathy for public servants sounds nice, but where has it gotten us? It’s about time people call out the problems and point the blame where it belongs. I am not saying its is the employees themselves, but i am saying the system and the environment in which they work, which is dictated by a single party system, is failing us. It’s time to be honest with ourselves and fix this mess. What we have been doing is not working, and is only getting worse.

  6. There are plenty of Republican’s controlled cities and counties throughout the state (rural and urban), and their municipal processes are no different. So your assertion that progressive SJ is “messed up” is wrong and clearly you are just an armchair critic.

    I work in regions across the state and trust me – cities and counties are virtually identical, however the best ones have good, hard working, dedicated staff. Yes, the employees themselves make the only difference.

  7. Mr. Khamis laid out a number of building-permitting problems with convincing specificity. You haven’t identified any error in what he wrote, but instead are relying on name-calling.

  8. Well said Johnny,
    Big Government creates the big problems that take big money and big time to get any projects done.
    Big Government Bureaucrats just hate anyone coming in and pointing out what a bunch of fools we have running things. Oh did I forget to mention Big Government Union jamming sticks into the wheels of progress and their lawyers.
    Trump was right about everything!

  9. There are problems too due to petty differences between what Public Works wants and what Planning wants. And last minute changes (through no fault of the project) as to a utility pole location means changes to Planning, Public Works and Building plans and rerereview. Planning does not like to work well with others (Santa Clara County, however, has proven VERY good at departments working together!). Oh, and change anything on a Planning Approved plan – even as little as a 1/4″ on the width of a porch column? Oh, you bad contractor. You are in for months of re-review by Planning as the houses stand empty and ready to be moved into! The cities are creating their own bottlenecks in Planning. Public Works and Bldg and Fire Departments are far more easier to work with.

  10. If the employees themselves make the difference, then perhaps they ARE the problem?
    Maybe we should outlaw the ability of public employees to unionize AGAINST the tax payers?
    After all the public employee unions get money to elect their favorite politicians from the the very same politicians who got the money from raising/expanding taxes & fees on the taxpayers.
    So in effect, the politician milks the taxpayer for money which goes to the public employees, who then give money back to the politician. Rinse and Repeat.

    So I guess your right Ted.

    P.S. Just because there is a cpl of “Republican” cities in CA does not absolve the single party system we have in this State. Liberal Democrats OWN this carnage.
    Even a guy sitting in his armchair can see that.

  11. The financial system limit causes a political system limit.
    Politicians need to be aware that there are no simple answers, no policy tools that can solve the dilemma of ‘stimulate and add to stagnation in a decade, versus do not stimulate
    and risk immediate stagnation,’ which is discussed in the book.

    What led politicians to make our financial worse? Economics originated as a
    political and social science but has somehow lost its
    way buried in the detail of microeconomics. The old rule of ‘stimulate
    your way out of recession’ was fine when debt levels
    were much lower, nowhere near the feasible limits, and
    therefore credit could expand without anyone worrying about the consequences.
    As noted, for a period that ended nearly forty years ago,
    that expansion caused negative real interest rates.
    Now, after seventy-five years of the post-war consensus, in which every recession has been resolved by economic stimulus,
    the economic cycle driven by central banks keeps bumping up against the financial system limit.

    Central banks are now cornered by their past policies.
    The Fed, and other central banks, need to keep on stimulating
    so that more credit can pay the interest cost of earlier debt creation. The alternative is to crash the economy, which nobody wants.
    The financial system limit and political system limit are
    intertwined.

  12. No kidding….
    A simpler way of saying might be:

    “They are running out of other people money to spend”

    Fire them all and start over, otherwise the lifestyle you know is going to change soon.

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