The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has been troubled for years, marred by bureaucratic delays and clunky technology.
But in recent months, those factors have combined with severe understaffing, high turnover, a bribery scandal and a leadership upheaval, leaving the department in what many say is the worst shape it’s ever been in.
In a dozen interviews with construction industry professionals and homeowners, people seeking a permit from the city described unprecedented delays that prevent them from starting projects as construction costs and inflation skyrocket. Those who build without a permit risk paying thousands of dollars in fines, according to DPP.
“It’s not a dream home anymore,” said Jeoffrey Cudiamat, CEO of Structural Hawaii Inc. a local architecture and civil engineering firm. “It’s a nightmare.”
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he is committed to fixing the problem. Since taking office last year, he has authorized the creation of 80 new positions and the filling of 80 existing jobs in the department as well as supporting efforts to modernize its technology.
“I take a lot of phone calls. I’ve heard the frustration firsthand,” Blangiardi said in an interview earlier this month. “I feel that frustration. I feel that disappointment. And I feel that somehow, maybe, we’ll get it right.”
He has a tough road ahead of him. The situation is so bad that even simple projects drag on for months or longer.
It took six months for DPP’s former director David Tanoue to get the go-ahead to build a trellis over his deck, according to public records. Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has waited almost a year for a permit to renovate his kitchen. City records show the $33,000 project was submitted in October 2021 and hasn’t even made it onto a plan reviewer’s to-do list.
DPP data shared with Civil Beat illustrates the backlog. A quarter of the department’s positions are vacant, and permitting approvals are taking twice as long – and sometimes even longer – than they did a few years ago, it shows.
In August 2022, it took an average of over seven months to get a residential permit. In 2017, it took half that time.
It’s even worse for commercial applications. A project that five years ago would’ve been approved within five months, on average, now takes more than a year.
As of August, 8,000 projects were pending, according to data released by City Council Vice Chair Andria Tupola.
Those who seek to build without a permit could be shut down by DPP and forced to pay double or triple the amount of their building permit fee, which can amount to many thousands of dollars depending on the project, the department said.
In an interview, Tupola said she’s been inundated with complaints from constituents. She said she is working on some legislative solutions, but she said generally, the problems are ones that only the executive branch can fix.
“I really feel this administration needs to make it their priority,” she said. “I don’t feel any urgency on their part.”
Experience The Permitting Process Yourself
Why Is DPP So Slow?
Dean Uchida, who was appointed by Blangiardi to lead DPP, resigned in September after a year and a half on the job, citing unspecified “philosophical differences” with the mayor. Former deputy director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna is now the acting director. The positions for her top two deputies are vacant.
Overall, the department has been plagued by low staffing and high turnover.
When Blangiardi took office, his administration instituted a temporary hiring freeze for vacant city positions so DPP couldn’t fill vacancies until this current fiscal year, Uchida said in an interview in August. Even when it gained authorization to hire people, the human resources department has taken an average of six months to bring people on board.
Uchida referred to the problem as a “treadmill going nowhere.”
The budget passed for fiscal year 2023 includes funding to fill 80 DPP vacancies and create 80 new positions. But the city has struggled to fill them.
The department hasn’t attracted enough candidates, the mayor said, and those who do apply face so many delays in the human resources department that they find other jobs before the city even invites them in for an interview.
“You’ve got to understand that this is really early on in a very complex scenario when it comes to our human resources,” he said.
The mayor said he’s working on filling positions, but it’s a major challenge. He has said the city has been hiring about 600 people per year, but more than that quit or retire every year.
Many who do get hired at DPP don’t last long, according to Tupola. Some are recent college graduates without professional licenses or expertise in architecture or engineering, she said.
“They got overwhelmed,” she said. “A lot of them stopped answering the phone calls because they didn’t even know how to answer for what they were saying. And then they quit.”
The lack of staffing slows down the permitting process from beginning to end.
One of the biggest delays comes during prescreening. The wait time for prescreening alone is currently five months, Takeuchi Apuna said in a joint interview with Blangiardi.
During prescreening, DPP staff checks for basic items like the accuracy of the tax map key and ensures the file name on the submittal isn’t too long, according to Perry Tamayo, who heads the permit issuance branch. The file name has a limit of 45 characters, he said.
Mistakes can cause plans to get bumped to the back of the line, and there’s no way around it. All applicants have to go through prescreening, even if they want to bypass DPP later and pay extra for a third-party reviewer to approve their plans.
As of late August, DPP only had three dedicated prescreeners. Other clerks are available to help, but they have other duties, Tamayo said. The department said the prescreens each have an average caseload of 580 applications per month.
“It’s the time frame to get out of that waiting line that is driving the homeowners crazy,” one licensed architect said.
The architect and other construction industry professionals and homeowners spoke to Civil Beat on condition of anonymity because they feared becoming blacklisted by a department they relied on for their livelihood.
Once a project clears prescreening, it goes to a plans examiner who routes it to other agencies, including the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and DPP’s stormwater and wastewater branches. Some projects may also require review by the fire department.
By and large, these agencies have a relatively fast turnaround time, according to DPP customers interviewed by Civil Beat. However, the applicants can’t see the comments until they have all been submitted into DPP’s ePlans system. This creates a chokepoint in the system, applicants say.
When all comments are received from those agencies, the plans examiner has to manually release them back to the applicant via ePlans.
Then the plans examiner reviews the project for city code compliance. That can involve ensuring the plans have a proper setback from the property line, a legal floor-area ratio and an appropriate number of rooms.
This step can drag on for months – and in some cases, years. As of last year, city employee data shows the department had only 24 plans examiners, including the prescreeners, to review some 20,000 permits every year. That’s an average of over 800 plans per examiner, per year. DPP did not respond to repeated questions about how many total plans examiners it has today.
However, when it comes to residential plans, the department said there are only eight residential plans examiners – five for major projects and three for minor projects. Each has an average monthly caseload of 353 residential projects, according to the department.
Making matters worse, building codes are “constantly changing,” Uchida said, forcing staff to get up to speed every three years.
For instance, city legislation aimed at cracking down on monster homes added another layer to the examiners’ work, he said. So did a requirement passed by the Honolulu City Council in 2019 that all new buildings – or additions to existing ones – require a topographic survey that identifies the property’s surface features and elevation.
More time is required for properties in special management areas or flood zones, Uchida said, and those are areas in which third-party reviewers can’t help. DPP has to review it directly.
Since five current and former DPP employees were charged with bribery in March 2021, all residential applicants have to go through DPP’s ePlans system instead of submitting paper plans.
The idea was to make projects easier to track, but critics say the system is neither a tool for expediting permits nor a viable way to prevent corruption.
Kanani Padeken, a former building plans examiner, was DPP’s point person for the ePlans system and still managed to accept money to do favors. She pleaded guilty last year to accepting at least $28,000 in bribes from architect Bill Wong.
The transition to ePlans for residential projects has only slowed the department down, applicants said.
“It hasn’t helped at all,” said Eric Olson, a project manager and senior estimator for The Nakoa Companies.
On top of all the other delays, applicants say DPP staff often give them comments that are indecipherable or that could be cleared up with a quick meeting or phone call, but they’re unable to get through to the staff. Instead, they communicate – slowly – via ePlans.
“Ten years ago, you could walk in the door and talk with a plans examiner if they had questions or comments, and they’d help us,” but that’s not the case anymore, one draftsman said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, commercial projects are still submitted on paper, and they sometimes go missing from the department’s public-facing filing cabinets, applicants said. When that happens, the applicant has to pay for another set of printed plans, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
Customers say it’s taking so long to get a permit, that by the time they get it, any number of factors needed for the project may have fallen through – their financing may have dried up, inflation and construction price increases may have put the project over budget, or their contractor may no longer be available.
Even when a permit is issued, if 365 days have passed since the application was submitted, DPP can cancel the permit, sending the applicant back to the beginning of the line. In those cases, the applicant has to wait – and pay fees – all over again. It’s something Tupola said she is planning to address with legislation, although it hasn’t been introduced yet.
DPP did not respond to a question about how often this happens. However, the department’s last annual bulletin shows some 1,500 residential and commercial permits were canceled for various reasons in the last fiscal year.
‘Not A Quick Fix’
While DPP’s problems are especially bad right now, they aren’t new.
A 2020 city audit found that the department was letting certain companies monopolize its resources and it was plagued by delays, although those backups may seem quaint to applicants today.
Blangiardi says he’s working on it.
“Right now, this is not a quick fix,” he said.
Construction industry professionals often point to the city’s third-party review system as a possible solution. Through that program, the city tests and certifies outside parties so it can outsource permit reviews to licensed professionals. However, the mayor said the third-party reviews became “problematic.”
Internal city audits found that third-party reviewers were OKing plans that shouldn’t have been approved, according to Uchida. Officials were concerned, but the audits themselves were slowing the department down even more. So the department stopped doing them for residential projects and is now doing only random audits of commercial projects, Takeuchi Apuna said.
Tupola said the city should allow third-party reviewers to do more.
“There’s always bad apples, and we’ve got to move forward,” she said. “I don’t know how you think you’re going to clear up a backlog of 3,500 prescreen permits if you guys just keep using the same couple of people.”
City Council members considered ordering an updated audit, but Blangiardi said that’s not necessary considering little has been done to address the original audit’s recommendations.
“A lot of what we spent our time on initially was trying to build some trust within the department and get to know the people while at the same time developing the solutions,” he said.
One potential way to attract more employees with the qualifications needed to process building plans quickly would be to increase salaries.
The current range for entry-level building plans examiners is $36,564 to $54,108, according to city salary data. The vast majority of plans examiners in the department in the last fiscal year made less than $63,228, which meets the federal government’s definition of “low income” for individuals in Honolulu.
Hawaii Government Employees Association President Randy Perreira, whose union represents DPP workers, said he would welcome discussions about increasing salaries.
But that doesn’t seem to be on the table.
“These were agreed-to deals done prior to (my administration), and nobody’s come in here complaining about that,” Blangiardi said of public workers’ collective bargaining contracts.
“People who can make more money in the private sector always reserve the right to leave,” he added. “I don’t think money right now has been an issue.”
Takeuchi Apuna said she’s taking several other steps to speed things up.
The department is in the process of procuring artificial intelligence software that Takeuchi Apuna says should winnow down the prescreening time from five months to a few days. There were 3,000 plans in the prescreening queue earlier this month, she said.
The department is also looking for new software to replace its antiquated system, called POSSE, and is drafting standard operating procedures for staff. There weren’t any before, she said.
In addition, DPP is comparing its books to other jurisdictions to see if the codes it’s enforcing are “duplicative or overly burdensome,” she said. And officials are meeting with construction industry leaders to discuss solutions.
Part of the problem lies with them, she said.
“If you put in good plans, your plans are going to go through a lot quicker,” she said.
“And so the problem we have is that there’s a lot of back and forth right now and a lot of handholding, actually, by DPP to be like ‘Ok, this is wrong and this is wrong,’ and it keeps going back and forth. We want to raise the standard and quality of the applications coming in,” she added.
Whether Takeuchi Apuna will stay on as a permanent director is not yet clear. The mayor said he wants to see how the coming months play out before deciding how to proceed.
‘Am I Going To Die Before I Get My Permit?’
The assurances from the mayor and the department offer little solace to people mired in the process.
Aina Haina resident Clayton Chang, 74, finally picked up his residential permit last week after three and a half years of waiting.
The Papai Street home that he shares with his wife was badly damaged in a devastating flood in 2018, which prompted the couple to apply to demolish the property and rebuild.
Chang applied for three permits in 2019 – one to demolish the property, one to build a two-story home so Chang’s daughter could live upstairs and another to construct an accessory dwelling unit.
In anticipation of the construction, the couple cleared the home of many of their belongings. Furniture was moved into a pod outside the house, and they stored the rest of their possessions in a condo, which became too cluttered to actually live in.
So Chang started sleeping on an air mattress in his living room and waited for the OK from DPP to rebuild his home.
April of this year marked three years since he submitted his first permit application.
“Am I going to die before I get my permit?” he wondered as he waited for its approval.
In June 2021, DPP canceled his permits and the process had to begin again, public records show. Chang isn’t sure why, though he wonders if has to do with the fact that his architect, Bill Wong, and the plan reviewer on his case, Kanani Padeken, were charged by the federal government for bribery a few months earlier.
In the meantime, the electricity isn’t working in part of Chang’s house, and the hot water heater, which was hooked up to solar panels after the flood, doesn’t allow for hot showers on cloudy days, Chang said.
“I thought I’d only have to live that way a short time, but a short period turned out to be three and a half years,” he said.
Chang said it was a bittersweet relief to pick up his permit. He signed an agreement with a contractor before the coronavirus pandemic started in March 2020 and doesn’t know what a new quote will look like.
“It’s been very frustrating on my part because costs have almost doubled or tripled for materials because of the delay,” he said.
Erik and Denise Soderholm have their own story of DPP frustration.
Since 1989, the couple has operated Soderholm Bus and Mobility. Their small business retrofits and sells vehicles that are accessible to people with disabilities and supplies Handi-Vans to the City and County of Honolulu.
The couple’s current location on Dillingham Boulevard in Kalihi-Palama, along the planned Honolulu rail line, is getting cramped. So, they bought a plot of land three blocks makai for over $5 million and applied for a permit to construct a new facility in December 2019.
They hoped it would be ready for move-in by December 2020, but they just got permit approval in May – two and a half years later.
The Soderholms were able to get a grading permit for their new employee parking lot first but didn’t want to start the work until they had the construction permit for the remainder of the property. Unfortunately, the construction permit took so long to get that the grading permit expired – forcing them to apply for the grading permit, and pay the fees, all over again.
Denise Soderholm said DPP dragged the project out with unexplained delays and what the couple considers nitpicky notes and questions. DPP demanded to know what kind of equipment the couple planned to have in the employee gym, Denise said. Meanwhile, she said, their heavy filing cabinets have never been questioned.
Some questions were “asked and answered” multiple times, Erik said, but he feels he can’t express his frustration with the staff because that might only cause further delay.
“We want to invest in the neighborhood,” Denise Soderholm said. “You would think that they’d say: Hey, this is a really good project. Why are we giving these guys so many ridiculous obstacles?”
They hired a permit “expeditor” – someone who applies on someone else’s behalf and acts as a liaison between DPP and the client – but Denise says that’s a misnomer.
Considering the circumstances, it could be tempting to think about building without a permit, Erik said, but that would only make things worse.
“If you build without a permit, they can make you tear it all down,” he said.
With time lost and interest rates rising, the delays mean that the Soderholms will pay more for their new location. The holding costs alone so far are close to $1 million, according to Erik.
That may be manini for a big corporation, he said, but it means their small business takes another hit at a time when supply chain disruptions and inflation are already eating into their revenue.
“This is huge for our family,” he said.
Erik Soderholm said it’s disappointing that the department’s problems haven’t been solved over multiple mayor’s administrations. Blangiardi came into office saying he would run the city like a business, but Soderholm said that wasn’t realistic.
“The city isn’t a business. And when you’re just a businessman, you think that you can do that,” he said. “I think he was naive.”