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Cities can and should streamline housing approvals


By Sal Rodriguez, Pacific Research Institute

In the face of soaring housing costs, cities across the American West are slashing red tape to make it easier for builders to build. While state laws and macroeconomic trends greatly influence housing markets, local governments have direct powers of their own that can delay or expedite development.


Convoluted approval processes can mean lengthy delays and costlier developments, which in turn can mean less and more expensive housing. Fortunately, many city leaders are not only recognizing this but taking action to streamline how their own governments are doing things.

Since taking office in 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has issued executive directives ordering city departments to reduce permit review and processing times. This has included explicit directives requiring ministerial reviews of affordable housing developments within 60 days of receipt and bypassing onerous public hearing requirements. The result? Thousands of additional housing units have been approved in an expeditious manner and thousands more are making their way through the process.

In 2021, city auditors in Portland, Ore., flagged the city’s permitting processes as “frustratingly slow” and a key barrier to housing development in the city. Last year, the Portland City Council overruled the objections of city bureaucrats and ordered the consolidation of the city’s permitting system from several bureaus into one office. The consolidation is set to go into effect on July 1.

Los Angeles and Portland aren’t alone.

Reforms in Phoenix

In 2023, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signed into law Senate Bill 1103, which allows cities in the state to authorize administrative review and approval of site plans, development plans, land divisions, plats and plat amendments without public hearings and city council approval.

Most recently, in February, the Phoenix City Council approved changes to the city’s code to allow administrative review and approval of plat approval and plat amendments by the city’s planning and development department. That change alone is expected to speed up reviews by approximately 30 days.

“This is another process improvement the city is implementing to assist in building more affordable housing projects,” said Vice Mayor Debra Stark. “This change makes the process more efficient by allowing administrative approval of plats. Instead of awaiting City Council approval, city staff, who are in the office daily, can now record plats quicker. Avoiding delays in the homebuilding process helps keep housing prices affordable.”

Reforms in Denver

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, elected last year, campaigned on permitting reform as a top priority of his. In his first fiscal year budget plan, approved in October 2023, he outlined a goal for the city of preserving or building 3,000 units of affordable housing units in 2024.

“To meet these ambitious targets we must also reform our permitting process to make sure units can get built more quickly,” he wrote. “To that end, we are investing half a million dollars to redesign our permitting process to ensure we can approve all permits much faster, but especially to meet our goal of turning around new affordable housing permits in 90 days.”

In February, Mayor Johnston also announced permitting reform as one of his top objectives for the year, setting a target of reducing the city’s review time by 30% by the end of the year.

The move couldn’t come at a better time. In January, the city’s auditor reported on a litany of problems in the city’s permitting process. “Construction plan review errors, unclear instructions, and a lack of manager oversight is increasing costs and slowing down the process for homeowners to get permits for renovation and building projects in Denver,” the auditor found.

Reforms in Washington state

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5290, which requires cities to streamline their permitting processes for housing.

Phased-in over two years, the law provides for grants to help cities streamline their permitting processes and transition from paper-based systems to digital systems. Most important, it also requires cities to meet established permit-review timelines. If they don’t, they are required to refund a portion of fees collected from applicants.

According to the Building Industry Association of Washington in 2022, “the average permit delay is 6.5 months, resulting in a total holding cost of $31,375.” Hence, the need for a statewide prodding of cities to speed things up.

As Traci Tenhulzen from the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties noted in an op-ed for The Seattle Times, some cities have already implemented the sort of simplified processes that developers, homebuyers and renters alike can benefit from.

“Some cities have already stepped up and shown that it is possible to insert predictability and efficiency into the permitting process,” she wrote. “For example, the city of Auburn allows concurrent review so that reviews by different disciplines can happen simultaneously to save as much as a year in a housing project … . Auburn is also one of many cities that allows for final plat applications to be administratively approved.”


A first step for any city trying to solve their housing problem should be to evaluate how they review and approve proposed housing developments. Delays mean higher costs and less supply over time than might otherwise be the case.

While maybe not as headline-grabbing as popular but counterproductive measures like rent control or subsidized housing, efficient and responsive permitting processes can mean months or even years of difference in getting a project online.

Cities can and should take the initiative to follow the lead of cities which are finally doing something about this.


Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.