Permits down, quality now up

Just three years ago, Atlanta was in the midst of a boom that brought in 100,000 new residents. Construction was omnipresent, and builders thronged the city’s permitting office.

Obtaining a permit for a single-family home, the simplest type of construction, often took as long as four months. The system spurred a thriving sub-industry of “expediters” — people who stood in line for builders and endured the interminable waits and indifference of Bureau of Buildings employees.

Inside the office, rolled-up architectural drawings piled up like cordwood and files stacked up where they were dumped.

“It looked like someone had an armful of plans, spun around and let them go,” said Chris Burke, vice president for the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association.

It got so bad, the Home Builders Association sued the city. A settlement was reached that guaranteed that after December 2006, it would take no longer than 60 days to permit a single-family home and after June 30, 2007, just 30 days.

“They hit those marks,” Burke said. “Just in time for a recession.”

By the end of September this year, the city had permitted 114 single family homes, including just three in February. By comparison, the city permitted 178 homes in October 2006 alone.

“I’d rather be complaining about how hard it was getting permits,” said Jim Brown, a builder in Atlanta for 30 years. “Right now it’s great down there because there’s no one there.”

Builders say the effort to improve the system was working before the market crashed. As the economy recovers, many say the construction industry will return to the city before things improve in the suburbs. The city’s bureaucracy, they say, had better be ready.

Ibrahim Maslamani, hired to run permitting for Atlanta in mid-2006, said the problems he found in the department he took over were “cultural” as well as technical.

“There was a feeling of, ‘We are the government and we’ll issue them when we want,’ ” he said.

Maslamani reminded workers some cities had privatized their operations, so their jobs weren’t as safe as they thought. He set to work instilling a customer service mindset, manning the counter himself and asking customers if they had been helped. “It was just like a grocery store. If there’s a line, you open a second checkout.”

He reordered the office floor plan, so applicants flowed from one station to another, and initiated a new electronic tracking system that has been installed in stages. Maslamani also asked prospective builders to bring three full sets of building plans and eight copies of other plans for actions like sewer and tree removal. Though an inconvenience for some, he said, it allows several different departments in his office to work on the plans simultaneously.

Brown, the Atlanta builder, still doesn’t like the city bureaucracy, but understands the idea behind it.

“When you’re building in an urban environment you probably need more checks and balances,” he said. “You’re usually building between existing homes.”