Audit Calls Honolulu Building Permit Process Inefficient; City Says It's Working To Improve It

Jan 9, 2020

A recent audit of Honolulu's Department of Permitting and Planning found the process to approve building permits is a time-consuming and inefficient one. But city officials argue the audit's results don't take into account the steps taken by the department and administration.

The Office of the City Auditor began investigating the department's permit review process in early 2019 at the request of the Honolulu City Council. Between February and August 2019, auditors sought to identify barriers that contribute to prolonged or delayed permit approvals. They also looked at whether the department was effectively managing its processing systems, and whether staffing levels were sufficient.

"We found the Department of Planning and Permitting does not effectively manage the permitting process for timeliness," said Acting City Auditor Troy Shimasaki.

"Specifically, the department does not properly administer the city's rules relating to the timely issuance of building permits. As a result, permit applications are subject to extended review times and excessive review cycles."

Shimasaki pointed to one example that requires DPP to process residential building permits within two days. But investigators found in the past five years the department only met that deadline 20% of the time.

Shimasaki says on average it takes three months to get this type of permit.

The report also found that the department was consistently understaffed. The shortages may have allowed other issues to surface, such as a lack of a quality assurance system to identify problems and solutions.

Auditors also found lax controls allowed private companies to monopolize permit review appointments, limiting access by members of the public.

City Council member Kymberly Pine is part of a panel studying permitting issues.

She says the council received reports that the inefficient permitting process was having negative impacts on companies. The problems raised in the latest audit are similar to those contained in a 2004 report.

"It's very telling, that these red flags have been brought up more than a decade ago, and nothing has happened" she said. "We cannot find these inefficiencies and do nothing."

Managing Director Roy Amemiya said in a statement that the city is already implementing the audit's recommendations. He added the length of time in issuing permits is not the most important criteria in evaluating the system. He said building safety and public safety are priorities, as well as the accuracy and completeness of reviews.

Amemiya also said the audit ignored Mayor Kirk Caldwell's seven initiatives to improve the process.

Caldwell told HPR that since announcing his plans to improve the permitting  process in 2018, he's met with department officials monthly to go over projects and permit issues.

One of those intiatives is Mālama Monday. Caldwell says that's a day when the department doesn't accept new permit applications. Instead, staffers use the time to review and process submitted applications.

"They report to me on how successful these initiatives have been," Caldwell said. "It's made a difference, but, I'm afraid to say, not enough of a difference. It's resulted in more permits being put out by the department, but not a dramatic amount."

Caldwell says because of the results, he began meeting with DPP managers on a weekly basis. Caldwell says he will continue to work with the department staff to find ways to improve the permitting process.

Shimasaki says although Caldwell's initiatives were implemented outside of the audit's review period, DPP continues to exhibit the same problems.

"Perhaps over time that may change, and we are encouraged by the department's and executive branch's efforts to improve the system," he said.

"But going forward, we do caution, and ask them to seriously monitor what's going on to make sure that improvements actually do occur."

You can find the latest report below: