San Francisco Chronicle
New permit law gets mixed reviews
Prop. H ‘magical’ for some business owners — others call S.F.’s processing system a ‘mess’
For Katey McKee, San Francisco’s new law to streamline the permitting process for business owners was “magical.” She got her permits to open a café in the Mission within 30 days, just as voterapproved ballot measure Proposition H promised — unheard of before the change.
But for Zack Schwab, who’s opening a bagel shop in the Lower Haight, the same process was a “mess.” It took 45 days, by his count, from when he first tried to submit his application to get his permits. The process was delayed by multiple snags pushing back construction and increasing costs.
“The intent of it is so great and so crucial in trying to actually refill a lot of these vacant storefronts,” he said. “It just feels like the classic bureaucratic difficulties. If the whole point of the legislation is to cut through that, clearly there’s work to be done.”
While many entrepreneurs have been helped over the last
nine months by the new law to streamline the city’s byzantine business permitting process, others have found it falls short.
The help is critical as many small businesses struggle to rebound from a pandemic that crippled them for 18 months. The city is aware of the struggles and is trying to help.
“We have this collective goal of making San Francisco the easiest place, the most streamlined place, to open a small business,” Supervisor Matt Haney said during a city hearing Thursday. “And we are moving more quickly in that direction than we have in a long time.”
San Francisco has been deemed the most difficult city in the nation to open a small or medium-sized business, said Laurel Arvanitidis, of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, during a Thursday hearing on Prop. H. The complexities have led to a lucrative industry of permit expediters to help.
Prop. H, passed by voters in November, reduced the time to get permits to within 30 days and required departments to work better together. It applied to businesses in certain commercial corridors and downtown neighborhoods until this week, when it expanded to include all storefronts that aren’t yet permitted or need a special permit to change their use.
More than 150 business owners have used the city’s website to determine if they’re eligible for Prop. H, and about a third filed online applications, said Bridget Hicks, senior planner in charge of the program. Others have chosen to apply in person, but the city isn’t yet tracking those numbers, Hicks said. Permits filed in person, however, are “most often approved and issued the same day they are submitted,” she said.
Of the applications submitted online, every permit received approvals in less than 30 days, with an average time of 14 business days, Hicks said.
The online Prop. H application prompts prospective business owners to fill out a questionnaire, then creates a list of documents required for permits, Hicks said. Prop. H also allows more flexibility in using outdoor space, restaurants to rent space to co-working firms, retailers to operate pop-ups in vacant stores and nonprofits to run out of vacant stores. The legislation also got rid of special permit approvals and neighborhood notification requirements, which have led to lengthy delays in the past.
But some business owners, including Schwab, expressed frustration that it could take weeks of preparation and multiple attempts to finally submit an application and start the city’s 30-day clock ticking. Hicks defended Prop. H as a success and said the legislation intended to place the permit applications in business owners’ hands.
Sharky Laguana, president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission, said that Prop. H is “absolutely the right direction for the city to be heading” but that “it’s a work in progress.”
Some entrepreneurs said Prop. H has been very helpful.
McKee, who owns GlamaRama Salon on Valencia Street and opened Milk SF cafe next door on July 1, said Prop. H has been “magical and wonderful.”
McKee said the building department was “more punctual than I could keep up with.” By the end of January, she had all her permits. Prop. H also eliminated the need to notify the neighborhood of the space’s change of use.
“We slipped right through real quick,” she said.
Schwab finally received his permits for Schlok’s bagel shop on Aug. 31. This marked 45 days after he first submitted the application — although according to the city, due to an error that required him to resubmit two weeks later, it was still within the law’s 30day time frame. The city saw his application as incomplete and said that once complete, it was in the city’s hands for just 17 days, according to Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, a policy adviser in the mayor’s office.
“Even as we are working to make improvements to make this program run well, and make sure all businesses get permitted within the 30 day window, we are still nowhere near the 180-270 days it used to take to go through this process,” said Jeff Cretan, mayor London Breed’s spokesperson.
Schwab remains frustrated by what he said was a confusing process. He unexpectedly needed to apply for a full permit to cut a door in a wall and had to resubmit the entire application because of a mixup.
He was also unable to access the software that shows applicants real-time comments from plan checkers, which also slowed the process.
“I think people need to know to not bank their livelihoods on the 30 days,” he said.
Clint Tan, co-owner of Noodle in a Haystack, a ramen restaurant opening in the Inner Richmond, is about two weeks into the 30-day Prop. H timeline. He’s been frustrated by a lack of communication between departments and confusing requirements.
But to Hicks, “there’s always going to be back and forth” on projects that require the signoff of multiple departments with their own complex compliance codes, from planning and building to fire.
Before the 30-day clock even started ticking, Tan spent a couple weeks finalizing his application and another week figuring out how to pay for it. He’s been paying rent since June 1. While he appreciated help from the Prop. H team, he said the process has been “beyond frustrating.”
Tan wonders how much Prop. H is doing to support small businesses. He’s thinking about his own backup plans, including selling the lease and returning to run his ramen pop-up out of his house.
Businesses are “the lifeblood of our city, and they’re (the city) putting up these little
hurdles,” he said. “How are you going to recover from this