Denver’s understaffed planning department can’t approve projects fast enough, and some argue it’s making the housing crisis worse

Denver’s planning department is backlogged and understaffed, and some developers argue that the lag that’s causing in approving new projects is keeping the city from solving its housing shortage.

For major residential builds like single-family homes and duplexes, Community Planning and Development is only completing project reviews in its ideal timeline of four weeks in 1% of cases.

“Major residential reviews are running about 3-4 weeks behind schedule, as we continue to work through a sustained high volume of residential permit applications,” wrote department spokesperson Laura Swartz in an email. “Typically these reviews take 4 weeks to complete, but are currently taking about 7-8 weeks. We work the oldest projects first, which is why the on-time percentage is not a helpful indicator for this review type right now. ‘Major residential’ means new single-family homes, duplexes, certain types of townhomes, and new additions over 400 sq.ft./major remodels to any of those units.”

For revised applications for major residential projects — and often several revisions are required — the city is running between one and two weeks behind and is only completing 16% of reviews on time.

As far as apartment complexes, condos and other commercial developments go, the city is missing the mark but doing somewhat better, meeting timeline goals 52% of the time.

Developer Andrew Feinstein said delays in permitting lead to an overall increase in costs — especially in a city that has experienced over 9% inflation in the past year.

Ultimately, it’s not developers who pay the price.

“It gets passed on to the customer, and the customer is the renter,” he said.

Even minor residential project plans for things like new window wells, interior remodels and patios are only being reviewed by the deadline 1% of the time and are taking almost 24 days to complete.

At a Monday City Council Budget and Policy Committee meeting, Community Planning and Development head Laura Aldrete presented the department’s plan for the upcoming year. Councilman Kevin Flynn shared a story with her about a Harvey Park couple expecting a new baby and going through a kitchen remodel. Though their kitchen has been demolished, the contractor can’t start the work until the city approves the plans.

“They’ve been told it could be five months to seven months before they could get this underway and approved,” he told Alderete. “And that’s clearly a problem.” She asked him to email her and agreed to look into it.

Carlos Maestas holds a piece of gear he bought for his business, Litto's Fencing, after COVID shut down his work as a chef. March 24, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Developer Jon Roberts told Denverite he has had three single-family homes that have been stuck in the permitting process for a year.

And that’s after he abandoned his goal of building attainable multi-unit projects in the city.

“I will absolutely never do another multi-family project in Denver,” he said. “Permit wait times are not the only reason, but it’s a big one.”

As Feinstein tells it, the city’s delays in permitting are interfering with its stated goals to provide more housing that working- and middle-class people can afford.

Community Planning and Development has several explanations for the backlog.

Like many departments in the city, it is struggling to hire new workers, counting some 48 vacancies.

Construction projects were postponed during the pandemic. Both developers and homeowners pushed back work and there has been a hike in new submissions.

And developers have been trying to submit their projects ahead of June 30, the last day the current rules would be in place before the City’s Expanding Affordable Housing plan, which is currently being debated, may go into effect. That plan will likely increase linkage fees and other possible costs for developers.

Some on City Council wondered whether the planning department is working as efficiently as possible.

Councilman Paul Kashmann raised concerns that the department’s lagging behind on its core work because too much staff time has been allocated to the redevelopment of the Park Hill Golf Course. The Northeast Park Hill golf course is protected by a voter-approved conservation easement which would require voter approval to overturn to allow any plan — other than a new golf course — to go into effect.

Flynn asked Aldrete whether Mayor Michael Hancock’s mandate that city workers return to the office just twice per week is enough or whether the department needs to return to the office full time to catch up.

Aldrete agreed that the best collaboration happens when staff works in person, but she won’t be bringing them back faster than the mayor demands. Ensuring workplace satisfaction matters to a department with a labor shortage, she said.

When her team attempted to return to the office last summer, Community Planning and Development staff complained that other city agencies didn’t have to return to work on the same schedule and didn’t understand why they had to, Aldrete said.

Denver City Council member Kevin Flynn attends a committee meeting in the body's main chambers at the City and County Building. March 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

 

Aldrete said she wants the city as a whole to return to the office on the same timeline. “We have to be a united front on moving us back.”

Currently, most Community Planning and Development staff work from the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a smaller number on Wednesdays and the fewest on Mondays and Fridays. When they are not in the office, they are working from home.

“I never would have thought Mondays and Fridays,” said Flynn, with a grin.

Until Hancock requires city workers to be back full time, “I think one of the things that could be advantageous, is really being demonstrative on what days work teams can come back together, so that that collaboration can happen,” Aldrete said.

The Litto's Fencing crew at work on a job in Harvey Park. March 24, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

 

Community Planning and Development is trying to hire dozens of positions, some of which have been empty for over half a year.

“It’s hiring that includes a number of pieces, from staffing a new Affordable Housing Review Team and new positions to filling vacant positions created through typical staff turn-over and retirements,” wrote Swartz. “Like many employers and city agencies, recruiting and hiring is certainly an area where we are focusing right now, and we do believe this will have a positive impact helping reduce average review times for projects.”

Aldrete said the agency is currently bringing back retired workers and exploring contracting with third-party agencies to expedite plan reviews.

The city has had a position open for a city urban designer for over half a year, and Councilmember Amanda Sandoval wondered what the status on the hire was.

“We are currently in the interview process for that,” Aldrete said. “We went out to solicit for that in the late summer, early fall. We had had a finalist who could not make the move, because of family and housing costs, frankly. And so we’ve gone back out and are looking again. We’re using a recruiter this time for that position.”

After the meeting, Aldrete sent a message to councilmembers, assuring them that the department is improving operations and filling empty positions.

“We continue to hire to fill vacant positions and are in the process of bringing on a consultant to support the residential review team,” she wrote. “We are also implementing other process improvements to free up plan reviewer time and build more efficiencies within the development system and are looking at what issues are causing resubmittals so we can focus on how to reduce the number of review cycles for development projects. As innovations and improvements occur on hiring and process improvements, we will keep you posted.”