Streamline permitting processes for new home development for increased consistency and access across all levels of government.
Across the lifecycle of affordable housing development, the initial stages of concept and pre-development can be unpredictable and come with administrative and financial delays. Prior to breaking ground on construction, affordable housing developers can spend months — if not years — on pre-development activities, which include consolidating financing commitments, conducting site analysis with architects and engineers, and completing due diligence on the land or property, such as conducting environmental reviews and other physical risk assessments. In total, the pre-development phase can consume up to 20 percent of the total development cost for a project.See footnote 1
During this period, the process of acquiring permits and securing pre-development approvals may require significant time and administrative and financial resources. Meanwhile, local governments can vary widely in staff capacity and financial resources to help guide developers through these processes. Administratively, developers may find themselves navigating unclear and even conflicting guidance across and within agencies, particularly when seeking special-use permits or variances that exempt projects from zoning requirements. For developers that work in multiple jurisdictions, the challenges may be compounded by differences in regulatory and procedural requirements across parishes and incorporated municipalities, even within Region Seven alone.See footnote 2 Similarly, the financial cost for obtaining permits may pose additional obstacles that could discourage investors and donors from supporting affordable housing projects, including nonprofit developers or philanthropists who may want to maximize the use of their money for construction or acquisition instead of on permits and other soft costs — which are frequently higher in affordable housing due to the complexity of the financing and the need to assemble different funding packages.
Obtaining approval for new construction can be time-consuming and costly, and the lack of consistency in the review and approval processes can cause unexpected delays and cost increases, which may be passed on to homeowners and tenants. Individually and collectively, these factors can slow the volume and speed of new affordable housing construction. By contrast, increasing efficiencies in the permitting process could make parishes and municipalities more attractive to nonprofit and for-profit developers of affordable housing.
This objective suggests a few tools and other ideas that parishes and municipalities in Region Seven could consider to help alleviate barriers and increase opportunities for producing more affordable housing in their jurisdictions.
How to Make Progress on This Objective
In order to create more efficiency in permitting practices, local governments could consider amending regulatory and administrative practices. For example, localities could make zoning changes to allow multi-family homes to be built as-of-right, removing the need for discretionary approval from the government. In jurisdictions where amending zoning ordinances is not feasible — or for those that do not use zoning — policymakers could consider adopting administrative changes that could create more predictability and clarity in the process for permitting review. Specifically, options for increasing administrative capacity could include:
- Conducting an assessment of the permitting process to identify obstacles and barriers;
- Centralizing information using dedicated staff or information pathways to help affordable housing developers better understand and navigate the permitting process; and/or
- Providing expedited review, waiving impacts fees, and/or providing other incentives.
An Assessment of the Permitting Process
In order to maximize the efficiency of the permitting process, local jurisdictions may consider first conducting a comprehensive review of the development process to identify any obstacles that may slow or impede residential construction or redevelopment. Obstacles may include delays in approval, duplicate or conflicting procedures and requirements, and other bottlenecks in the system that can slow down the permitting process for permitting staff, developers, and other stakeholders.
Importantly, local jurisdictions should collect stakeholder input via meetings and public forums to gather information from a diverse array of affordable housing participants and to better identify gaps and opportunities for adding efficiency. Local leadership should also consider collecting feedback from multiple forums — including public meetings, online surveys, and anonymous questionnaires — and capture public comments from developers and input from permitting staff at different levels of experience to more accurately capture the range of interactions between developers and staff.
Parishes and municipalities at different scales will vary in staff capacity and other administrative resources to review permits. Moreover, different jurisdictions may have distinct regulatory requirements for development or permitting processes. In order to help alleviate some of the burdens on developers to navigate multiple and different permitting processes, local jurisdictions could consider creating staff positions specifically dedicated to providing technical assistance to affordable housing developers. For example, the Atlanta Office of Buildings created two positions to serve as a liaison between city agencies and affordable housing developers. Additionally, the City of Atlanta launched a Housing Innovation Lab that provides technical assistance to nonprofit developers, such as providing master planning and design services, researching innovative approaches to affordable housing development, and providing educational materials to developers, their banks, and residents.See footnote 3 Additionally, jurisdictions could consider creating a “one-stop-shop” of government agency representatives, which can help answer questions from developers and other stakeholders, as well as to enable more consistency in protocols and coordinating responses to developers. Regional-support entities like Metropolitan Planning Organizations or regional watershed entities can potentially facilitate the development and/or staffing of this type of entity within Region Seven or across other watersheds in Louisiana.
Procedural and Financial Incentives
To encourage developers to build more housing that is affordable and/or includes resilient design elements, local jurisdictions could consider creating incentives for affordable housing creation in the permitting process, such as providing expedited review or offsetting or waiving impact fees. For example, in Pinellas County, Florida, the Board of County Commissioners — which administers the certification process for affordable housing development and processes requests for the modification of development standards — provides developers with relief from county review fees and expedited permit processes. In order to qualify, the planned development (either for-sale homes or rental units for income-eligible households) is required to first be certified as an Affordable Housing Development (AHD). The AHD is then given priority during the permit review process, with the goal of completing the permit review within a two-week window.
Similarly, in Austin, Texas, the S.M.A.R.T. Housing Policy Initiative is a municipal program that offers developers of affordable housing expedited review of up to half the normal time for conventional projects. The program is intended specifically for development projects that match the letters of the S.M.A.R.T. acronym: safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced, and transit-oriented. In addition to expedited review times, developers that meet the S.M.A.R.T. Housing certification standards may receive waivers at an average of $600 per unit for multi-family homes and $2,000 for single-family homes. Fee waivers may be applied to certain construction inspection fees, development review and inspection fees, as well as the city’s capital recovery fee (or private transfer fees) for water and wastewater – the costs of which may otherwise be transferred to buyers or renters.
Additionally, local jurisdictions could also consider offering incentives for resilient design while also increasing the availability of more diverse housing choices for residents. In Norfolk, Virginia, the city’s Green Home Choice Program offers expedited permitting for construction that meets certain energy-efficient design standards. In 2021, Norfolk’s city council approved a “Missing Middle Pattern Book” (Pattern Book) to use more streamlined permitting processes to encourage the construction of a more diverse housing stock — or more “missing middle” housing that provides residents with options somewhere between large, multi-story buildings and single-family detached homes. The Pattern Book was adopted as an appendix to the city’s local comprehensive plan, plaNorfolk 2030. As the creator of the term describes it, “missing middle” housing refers to “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types, compatible in scale with single-family homes, that help meet the growing demand for walkable, urban living, respond to household demographics, and meet the need for more housing choices at different prices points.” Norfolk’s Pattern Book addresses multiple complementary goals — increasing missing middle housing, increasing resilience, and alleviating barriers to permitting practices — by providing a detailed, step-by-step guide that developers, architects, and other housing stakeholders can use to build more missing middle housing in the city. In order to encourage more missing middle construction, the Pattern Book provides blueprints that are accompanied by pre-approved site plans that can be developed “by right” in certain districts in the city, reducing the timeline for a permitting process that can otherwise take from six months to a year.
Similarly, Norfolk has also built resilient design standards and incentives for developers into its land-use and zoning ordinance (see information about the city’s Resilience Quotient Points System). This is another example of how parishes and municipalities in Region Seven and beyond can evaluate regulatory, incentive-based approaches to enhance housing stock and make it safer.
Crosscutting Considerations and Practice Tips
When considering strategies to streamline permitting processes, decisionmakers may consider the following considerations and practice tips that apply to one or more of the strategies described above:
- Increase transparency and uniformity
- Create regional resources and capacity to identify and pursue opportunities for streamlining and coordinating procedural and regulatory requirements
- Increase administrative efficiency
These tips are based on priority implementation best practices and considerations most relevant to this specific objective, and do not present an exhaustive list for regional and local planners and policymakers. In addition to this objective, decisionmakers should, at a minimum, also refer to Goal Five for crosscutting considerations and practice tips for implementation.
- Increase transparency and uniformity: In housing development, time is money, and affordable housing development can be particularly time and resource-intensive. The permitting process and other administrative procedures in the pre-development phase serve a vital function in ensuring construction and building safety, as well as compliance with land-use and zoning regulations. However, when the process for affordable housing may already be resource and time-intensive, mission-driven private and nonprofit developers may be discouraged from making new investments in resilient, affordable housing. Therefore, local jurisdictions should consider promoting transparency and uniformity across the permitting process wherever possible in order to help alleviate the level of unpredictability and mitigate risk in the pre-development stages. For example, local jurisdictions could create an online electronic filing process and permit tracking systems or dashboards so that developers and staff can readily receive updates on the status of the permit review process. Similarly, the adoption of a uniform timeline and permit appeals process could also insert greater predictability to the process for developers.
- Create regional resources and capacity to identify and pursue opportunities for streamlining and coordinating procedural and regulatory requirements: By identifying opportunities to consolidate and synthesize permitting requirements, parishes and municipalities can both increase their administrative efficiency as well as create more consistent expectations for developers that pursue projects across multiple, neighboring localities.
- Increase administrative efficiency: Parishes and municipalities can increase the administrative capacity of its permitting staff to conduct reviews more quickly and uniformly through better delegation. For example, permitting agencies could delegate minor decisions to staff, who could make decisions based on predetermined criteria set by governing bodies or approval granting boards. This would free up those same bodies to focus on more complex projects. Additionally, assigning dedicated staff to provide technical assistance would help ensure a more uniform and standardized approach to permit review, rather than increasing the risk of providing different treatment to permit review across different staff members.
The summaries below highlight resources and case studies available in Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse that are relevant to this objective. They illustrate how many of the above benefits, practice tips, and planning, legal, and policy tools were or are being evaluated and used in practice in different jurisdictions. To learn more and navigate to the Adaptation Clearinghouse, click on the “View Resource” buttons.