The District has generated more than $2 million through a controversial program—quietly launched last September—that expedites official reviews of construction plans in exchange for special fees worth thousands of dollars. The effort strikes some residents as pay-to-play.
As reported by the Washington City Paper on Thursday, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has shepherded 115 projects through its Velocity and Expedition services, which the agency promises can help building plans get approved in as little as one day. The program made headlines in April after a local homeowner tweeted about its high fees, and residents complained that they had waited months for DCRA to review permits.
For the Velocity service, DCRA charges a standard fee of $50,000 for buildings smaller than 50,000 square feet, and up to $75,000 for buildings larger than that size. For the Expedition service, the fees start at $5,000 or $10,000 and ratchet up based on how many plan-review sessions a project needs. These fees do not include the regular costs of underlying permits, which can be several thousand dollars on their own.
Critics allege that program appears to mainly benefit companies who can afford to pay the fees, while homeowners and small businesses are forced to wait their turn for plan approval. DCRA has countered that the services have made its overall permitting work more efficient by helping to remove complicated projects from its caseload more quickly than otherwise.
That has not satisfied some residents. “I read the whole PDF on the program, and I was like, this doesn’t speak to residents,” Bree Ryback, the homeowner who brought attention to the program on Twitter, told NBC4 in April. “Residents can’t afford $25,000 just to get a permit in a day or two, and so now we have to wait.”
A spokesman for DCRA tells Curbed DC that the money raised through the program goes into the agency’s general fund for operations, and that officials are preliminarily assessing whether those proceeds could pay for the program’s staffing and other costs in the future.
Through a public-records request, the City Paper found that Apple, which is installing a new flagship store in the historic Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, was one of the first companies to express interest in the Velocity service. Emails obtained by the alt-weekly show that DCRA Director Melinda Bolling met last year with David Jannarone, a consultant for Apple and a former development bigwig for ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty, about the program.
Although D.C. lawmakers have scrutinized DCRA in the past couple of years for failing to enforce housing and construction codes, the accelerated permit program has not gotten much official oversight. The agency launched Velocity and Expedition through emergency rules on Sept. 26, 2017, the City Paper reports, meaning it did not face robust public review.
DCRA Deputy Director Lori Parris told the newspaper that the program has been used to advance affordable housing projects, including Parkway Overlook, a long-abandoned complex in Southeast that the D.C. Housing Authority is now redeveloping in an $82 million project with financial help from the city government.
But she also said the agency has diverted existing staff to provide these fast-track services rather than hiring new employees. City agencies make budget requests to the D.C. Council each spring, so DCRA likely will not receive new operating funds, via tax revenue, until 2019.
The report comes as the D.C. Council is weighing legislation that would break up DCRA into two discrete departments, one for building inspections and the other for business licensing. A majority of the Council preliminarily supported the bill when it was introduced in January.