Mayor London Breed Proposes Permitting Improvements to Speed Housing Construction

Housing for All effort would streamline the site permit process to significantly reduce permitting times for new developments and major renovations
March 14, 2023

San Francisco, CA — Mayor London N. Breed, City Administrator Carmen Chu, the Department of Building Inspection, and the Planning Department today announced an effort to improve San Francisco’s Site Permit approval process that is expected to dramatically reduce development timelines by months and even years. The change will require legislation which is currently being drafted and will be introduced in the coming weeks after an April public forum and outreach to further inform the policy. This reform is part of the Mayor’s Housing for All initiative, which sets the goals and policies to allow for 82,000 new homes to be built over the next 8 years.  

This proposal would streamline the City’s process for issuing a key project approval known as a “Site Permit,” which will reduce permitting times for new developments and major renovations. Analysis of past projects show this change could have saved up to 65% on some projects. The time savings comes from moving intake, administration and approval of the design, environmental review, and zoning entitlements from the Department of Building Inspection to the Planning Department. This shift will allow for concurrent review by multiple City departments, help resolve high-level design issues earlier in the process, and clarify a project’s post-entitlement process.  

“To build the housing we need for our residents and for the future of San Francisco, we must produce faster, more transparent and less costly housing construction,” said Mayor Breed. “A centerpiece of my Housing for All plan is shedding barriers and burdens that are counter-productive to meeting our housing goals. Streamlining this approval process is a good start in our work to untangle the complicated bureaucracy that has unnecessarily slowed housing development for decades.” 

On February 7, Mayor Breed issued her Housing for All Executive Directive to fundamentally change how the City approves and builds housing.  As part of the executive directive, the Department of Building Inspection and Planning Department are required to assess permitting timelines, identify opportunities to reduce review times, and implement process improvements to speed housing delivery in San Francisco.  

How the Site Permit Process Works Now 

San Francisco currently offers developers the option of securing their design approval, environmental clearance, and zoning entitlements through a Site Permit for projects that do not otherwise need Planning Commission approval. The Department of Building Inspection administers the clerical aspects of the site permit process, while the Planning Department manages the design review, environmental review and zoning entitlements. 

The Site Permit can be requested from the Department of Building Inspection before securing all the required Planning Department approvals. The process is often used for larger projects so that the initial construction can get underway while the remaining construction documents are still being reviewed and revised. 

Unfortunately, the current site permit process triggers multiple rounds of project reviews and revisions which require more time, are sometimes redundant and conflicting, and always expensive. 

Proposed New Streamlined Process 

The proposal will bifurcate the current Site Permit review process to substantially reduce the overall development timeline by standardizing the process and eliminating redundant stages during project and permit review. The new site permit process will feature fewer administrative steps, consolidate plan review, and reduce the number of times an applicant is asked to revise a plan for code compliance by having all the relevant departments review a project concurrently. With this narrower scope of review and a consistent, streamlined process, the Planning Department will be able to analyze projects faster, saving applicants time and money.  

Standardization of the site permit process will also establish greater transparency and a more predictable project review process at the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection. Permit applicants will receive clear direction from the City about the information and additional permits required for their project. 

Potential Impacts and Time Savings 

To evaluate the potential impacts of the proposed process, the City Administrator’s Permit Center analyzed previously approved site permit projects and found that they could have achieved substantial time savings from the proposed process and concurrent plan review. For example: 

  • A large apartment building on Market Street could have reduced its approval timeline from 4.25 years to 2.3 years;  

  • A condominium development on Tennessee Street could have shaved 1.5 years off the approval process – from 2.5 years to ten months, a 65% time savings.  

  • Similarly, a commercial warehouse on Indiana Street could have saved nine months, while a commercial condominium project on Stanyan Street could have saved ten months. 

“Improving the site permit process will both speed housing production and create a better, more efficient system for people who want to build in San Francisco,” said City Administrator Carmen Chu. “There is no single magic solution, instead, every painstaking day we shave off the development process is a day sooner a person can be living in a new home in the City.” 

“Changing the site permit process just makes good sense,” said Rich Hillis, Director of the Planning Department. “The process was well intentioned, but it is past time for a reinvention. This new system will allow City departments to focus on what each of us does best and to serve our customers better.” 

“This is a major improvement in how we review and approve major construction projects in San Francisco,” said Patrick O’Riordan, Director of the Department of Building Inspection. “It’s a smarter way of doing business that is going to produce housing in less time, for less money and using a more rational process. It’s a win-win for everyone.”  

The Mayor’s Office and the departments involved are now soliciting input and drafting legislation to codify these changes. The City plans to host a public forum for community input on April 19 and then have the proposal considered at a joint Building Inspection Commission and Planning Commission meeting on May 18.