SF housing bottleneck: resi entitlements, permits take longest in state

Averages nearly 1,000 days per project, according to city’s self-reported data

A photo illustration symbolizing how housing projects in San Francisco have the longest entitlement and permitting approval timeline in the state (iStock)
(iStock/Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

If time is money then San Francisco’s entitlement and permitting process for residential development is costing a bundle.

It takes nearly 1,000 days on average-––450 days for entitlements and another 525 days for permitting––to get cleared to start a residential project in the city, according to recent data from the State of California’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

San Francisco had the longest combined average for entitlement and permitting in the state, and also topped each category separately. Oceanside in San Diego County had the second-longest entitlement average at 360 days; Pittsburg in the East Bay was second on permits at 435 days.

Some practical examples drawn from the report: It took nearly three years to entitle a 25-unit, six-story residential building in Nob Hill; over three years to entitle and permit four four-bedroom units with an ADU in NoPa; and about the same to get a city Planning Department approval to turn a two-unit property in the Sunset district into a three-unit building by adding a story.

Those are only some of the approval timelines self-reported by the city to the state agency between 2018 and 2021 as part of a 2017 California law meant to streamline housing construction.

The San Francisco Planning Department did not respond to a request for comment. Megan Kirkeby, a deputy director of housing policy, for the state agency said via email that San Francisco’s slow approval timeline was “well-documented.” As the city goes through creating its sixth housing element cycle––a state-mandated housing plan for 2022 to 2030 that is currently under review–– it “will be required to analyze and address constraints to housing development, including their local approvals process, that may stymie housing production,” she said.

In general, the state supports the streamlining of local approvals and permitting processes, allowing quick approvals to projects that comply with state and city standards, Kirkeby said. San Francisco’s local approval process, on the other hand, “tends to allow for discretionary action on behalf of both planning staff, commissions, and elected officials, which increases the time and complexity associated with these approvals.”

Kirkeby did not directly address how longer timelines could be increasing costs or otherwise deterring development in the city, but offered up two reports by The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. One from 2018 interviewed developers who work in San Francisco and found that “the most significant and pointless factor driving up construction costs was the length of time it takes for a project to get through the city permitting and development processes.”

Another from 2020 that looked at hard costs impacting the construction of apartment buildings in the state found that, “While delays in permitting and approval may not affect hard construction costs directly, our previous research found that subcontractor concerns about project timelines and risk can make them hesitant to work in San Francisco, pushing up bids.”

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Kirkeby said HCD will be using the data it collected to create a system for its enforcement-focused Housing Accountability Unit to identify cities that are “struggling” to meet their state and local housing goals. A lengthy approval timeline, “while not conclusive, is a good indicator” of where local governments may be constraining new housing and “can help to identify if jurisdictions are not complying with State Housing Laws,” she said. Noncompliance could lead to loss of state funding and/or legal action.

San Francisco was previously called out by the Housing Accountability Unit after the city’s Board of Supervisors did not move forward two housing projects that had already had been given Planning Approval last year.

Last fall the unit sent a strongly worded letter asking the city to explain itself by the end of the year, followed by another one this February that stated it was “not satisfied” by the city’s response to its concerns that San Francisco had violated state housing law when it denied the two projects. It added that the inquiry into the “potentially concerning pattern” remains “open and ongoing.”

“Processing and entitlement timeframes and procedures in San Francisco typically exceed the norms for other jurisdictions of similar size and complexity and act as a constraint on housing development,” the letter reads.

San Francisco fared better in the portion of the state report on the timelines for getting projects built once they have gotten entitlements and permits.

San Francisco’s residential projects went from permitted to constructed in an average of 471 days, which keeps the city considerably below the jurisdictions with the longest timelines for that metric in the state. But combined with the lengthy entitlement and permitting periods, it takes an average of 1,446 days, or just under four years, for developers of any size project to go from submitting a proposal to the city’s Planning Department to having a certificate of occupancy.

Atherton, known for being one of the most expensive cities in the country, had the state’s longest average permitted-to-completed-construction timeline at 827 days, likely due to the size and level of finishes of the ultra-high-end homes being built there.

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