This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
It took more than a year for one processor hired to help clients get permits secure one for an emergency repair job. A property owner, at wit’s end, has appealed to the governor’s office for help. And one contractor, tired of unreturned voicemails, won’t take jobs in the city anymore.
These few examples represent just a snapshot of the complaints from contractors, property owners and professional permit processors who need required permits for housing and construction work in Baltimore. The permits are meant to ensure certain standards are met in new building construction and renovations, housing use and occupancy, and gas, electrical, heating and plumbing jobs.
But actually getting one can be incredibly difficult. Poor communication and an outdated, unintuitive computer system make navigating the process difficult, according to data from a nearly monthlong survey by the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development in February.
The Baltimore Banner obtained the more than 900 survey responses in a public records request and has spent the last several weeks reviewing the feedback.
Not all reviews were negative, but nearly four out of every five respondents said the process was difficult. More than one in three said it was very difficult — and, as one person put it more colorfully, a “loop of death.”
“Your current portal is a morass of dysfunction,” a property owner wrote.
“I AM ASKING TO HELP SPEND MONEY IN THE CITY. Why does the city make it so hard?” wrote another.
“It is ridiculously inept,” a respondent added.
More than a third of survey respondents said it took longer than 60 days to get their permit approved or denied. Getting encroachment plan permits — which authorize work on city and state-owned land — take the longest.
Not surprising, given the responses, that more than half the respondents said the city needs a brand new process.
Why it matters
For the latest in The Banner’s reader-inspired series, we followed up on concerns about the housing department’s permitting process, using the survey responses as a window into ultimately much larger concerns about city government operating inefficiently and potentially at a cost to taxpayers.
Yet, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said in an interview that the survey didn’t reveal anything new.
Kennedy, who took over as the permanent head of the agency in September 2021, said the department has known for “several years” that the current electronic system had become outdated and could no longer adequately serve users or staff. She said work on developing a new permit system began in earnest the year she officially took over and has been buoyed by a $3 million commitment by Mayor Brandon Scott, who allocated funds for permit office improvements from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation from the federal government.
Even with the problems, the 18-person permit division staff routinely processes about 40,000 permits a year, Kennedy added, but acknowledged that the system requires an overhaul. The city agency receives around 48,000 permit applications every year, housing spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said.
“This isn’t a lift that is easy from a resource standpoint, in terms of staff or monetary,” Kennedy said. “Not only is the permitting system important to function for all parties, it’s extremely important for the business community, and a critical component for the work we’re doing on our vacant housing reduction strategy.”
‘They’re not getting back to us’
So entrenched are the problems that several builders, contractors and property managers told The Banner that the city has alienated much of the business community solely due to permitting mishaps, and it has increasingly become a source of frustration among potential homebuyers, renters and other clients.
“It’s all about the cost,” said Lori Graf, CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association, which lobbies on behalf of about 1,000 companies across the state. “If things get more expensive, they get passed on to renters or to housing costs, and that’s a huge issue. We have a housing shortage and huge affordability issues … and to have things be more expensive because it’s taking longer shouldn’t be the case.”
Graf said many of the jurisdictions where members work have permit processing problems, but they tend to be worse in the city, a sentiment some contractors also told The Banner. But the complaints she hears from members with jobs based in the city tend to share a few common themes: predictability and transparency chief among them.
“We like to know what we need to do,” Graf said. “They’re not getting back to us in a timely fashion, and that’s a real frustration. Our members really want to know ahead of time so we can work that into our process.”
About one-third of respondents specifically cited poor communication and long response times as the biggest challenges to getting permits.
One property owner, East Baltimore resident Katie Gorham, said she began making repairs to her house starting a few years ago after having difficulty finding contractors to take the jobs. That included flooring finishes, leaky plumbing fixtures and improperly installed windows that qualify for historical tax credits.
Since then, she’s resorted to fixing many of the problems herself, and occasionally leaning on her local representatives, including City Councilman Antonio Glover, when she runs into hurdles.
Glover, she said, always responds quickly and has helped her get in touch with the right people, but the process still remains convoluted even after making those connections. “Honestly, whatever faith you might assume you should have in this system, just abandon it,” she said.
Kennedy said staff aren’t twiddling their thumbs but often are busy speaking to callers on top of their permit-reviewing responsibilities. The housing commissioner said the department has discussed creating a central call center that could help reduce this burden and expects a new system to debut early next year. She also pointed out that the survey results indicate few permit requesters are taking advantage of the free tools and trainings available, and that even a new system would have a learning curve.
City investors and property managers said they can’t afford to wait much longer and that their problems go far beyond “simple” fixes. Many contend that they want to help solve the city’s dual vacancy and blight crises but often feel impeded by red tape.
“It’s nowhere near as hard in Pennsylvania,” lamented Ron Boatright, a property owner in Baltimore who moved here about 2 1/2 years ago. He saw an opportunity in the city’s cheap housing stock and wanted to be part of the positive change.
Some of the interactions he’s had with staff members in the permit office have been courteous and helpful. “Aside from that, the incompetence is astounding,” Boatright said. In one particularly frustrating instance, he recalled being denied a permit due to “missing information” that he said he had already supplied, and he has routinely found it difficult to communicate with staffers.
“The condition that the city is in, you’d think they want to encourage people to invest and get properties up to value,” he said.
Nearly 50 survey respondents said they had encountered “rude” city employees or received conflicting information.
Boatright says the delays can also prove costly: every day lost to a permit snafu is one more day he can’t charge rent. He considers himself a mission-driven investor who has high tolerance for inefficiency, but he can’t say the same for many of his peers. “It seems like people want to give up,” he said.
Jacob Benzaquen, a property manager who runs a management company, feels similarly. An overly complex system, he said, not only discourages more people from investing in properties that need work but also encourages some to work around the system or find loopholes.
“And that is fraught with danger,” he said. “Liability, safety, and everything in between.”
He started buying property in Baltimore as early as 2010 and has run into problems securing permits for his units as well as his clients. He joked that too many people still talk about the glory days of former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer instead of working to fixing today’s problems.
“I’ve seen many a time, investors of mine — there are too many headaches, too many issues — and they decide to go to the county [Baltimore County],” he said. “And it’s sad, because everybody loses that way.”
Still, Benzaquen stays.
“I would be a hypocrite if I walked away from it, but you don’t want to build on quicksand, and sometimes, that’s what it feels like,” he said. “I’m frustrated because I care, not because I’m apathetic about the city.”
Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.
Baltimore Banner reporter Adam Willis contributed to this article.