This was written shortly before L&I closed its permit center and review boards on March 16th, 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak. For an update on this situation and other permit regulations, please see our blog here.
If you’ve read this blog, you might have marveled at the complexity of Philadelphia permits. Maybe not the way that you might marvel at a sunrise, but definitely the way you gawk at a the 76 interchange with the Vine Street Expressway at rush hour: there’s a lot happening, very slowly, in a creaky system designed decades ago, and everyone involved is a little testy. And even though there’s always renovation, big problems in the system are never solved. In the Philly permit system, one of the glaring problems is that you can’t submit applications online. But that’s changing: finally, after literal years of delay and false starts (this really is like highway construction, now that I think about it), Philadelphia permits are going online.
I’ll give you a moment to scream in joy and hug your loved ones.
Now that you’re back, you probably have a lot of questions. Questions like, “My dog is now hiding because I screamed in joy; what should I do to regain her trust?” and “What does it mean that Philadelphia permits are going online?”
We can help you with the second one!
What does it mean that Philadelphia permits are going online?
Right until end of business on Friday, March 13th, 2020, if you wanted any kind of building or zoning permit in Philadelphia, you would need to submit hard copies of all the considerable documentation required for application – in person. If you were a person or company granted a drop-off license from the old days, then good for you – you could drop off the documents. Everyone else had to wait in line – regularly for hours – just to submit the application package.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections, however, has finally had enough of all of us in-person applicants, and has created an online portal for application submission. You will collect all the same documents and submit them to the same department – but you’ll save a lot of time in the actual submission.
So this is good, right?
Well… here we at Permit Philly offer a word of caution:
The City uses a very, very outmoded online system to process licenses. It’s very aggravating and unreliable. That’s the system that’s being modified to accept online submission of permits.
So yes, the change is good – but for reasons only L&I and City Council understand, the City is doing the good thing in the weirdest, probably worst possible way. We expect a lot of confusion and consistent review delays through the first month of this thing. It’s a necessary change, but it could be painful.
(Still a good change, though!)
When are Philadelphia permits going online?
Right now! The first day permit applications should be possible online is Monday, March 16th.
In advance of this, the permitting desks closed today (March 13th) and will remain closed through the 17th – meaning, no permits will be issued or processed during that time. You can submit applications online (maybe) the 16th and 17th, but no one will look at them till the 18th – and you can start using the online application system on the 16th, but same deal: no review till the 18th. (If things go smoothly.)
[UPDATE] Things appear to have gone okay! The online system can be difficult to navigate, and there are lapses in communication from the City, but it’s no more frustrating than the old system, and occasionally faster.
I like doing things the hardest way possible. Can I still apply with hard copies, in person?
The answer below was written before the shutdown due to COVID-19 (the new coronavirus). For a while, you could not get permits in person; however, now you can schedule an in-person meeting to submit paper plan at phila.gov/li.
Yes, on March 18th – but the City will really discourage you from doing so. Basically, they won’t start reviewing the application until your check clears – so, 2-4 business days after you apply – and they will offer limited support if you take this route. They’re trying to make it as hard as possible so that you use the online system.
(And about payments: E-Check or credit card, from here on out. No more paper checks or money orders, which previously were the only ways you could pay for Philadelphia permits.)
What about EZ permits?
I’m so glad you asked!
EZ permits were until now procured from either L&I’s main permit center in the concourse of the Municipal Services Building, or from L&I district offices.
As of Monday, March 16th, they are no longer available at the district offices. They are available online… and if you want to try your luck, at the main permit center with a scheduled appointment.
What about plans?
They’re electronic! Put ‘em in PDF. Submit them. Done!
Even better – again, assuming this system actually works – you’ll be able to have the revisions to your plan returned electronically. So: when the examiner at the City decides that your plans are not quite sharp enough to issue a Philadelphia permit, the examiner will create notes in the digital file and send them back to you. You don’t have to print out and submit new plans – you can just submit revisions electronically.
Please keep in mind: even in PDF, the plans have to be the correct size, with the correct amount of space left for official stamps.
What about other departments?
Other departments – like Streets, PWD, and the Historical Commission – are also going to review applications online… according to L&I. These other departments, however, do not appear to have been consulted in depth about this process, and don’t have an online system linked to L&I’s new online system.
[UPDATE: Streets, PWD, and Historical were definitely not fully briefed on the new system; however, they worked it out with L&I throughout 2020 and are actually reviewing applications seamlessly, though with delays. However, Parks & Recreation (which controls permit approval for street trees) has kept its reviews on paper, which is a big disappointment. The Health Department is also still on paper.]
So here’s how it’s supposed to be working: you will apply to L&I, and L&I will farm out your application to the other departments, who will conduct their reviews and report back to L&I. When every department has chimed in, L&I will issue the permit online.
Here’s what’s actually going to happen: we don’t know! It’s clear already that for more extensive reviews, you’ll need to present hard copies to the other departments, while for simpler reviews you might be able to ride the online system. Probably, to keep the online process working, you’ll need to submit some hard copies of certain paperwork and plans, then scan that paper, then upload it to L&I.
Believe it or not: still an improvement!
Are there any other changes to the Philadelphia permit process as a result of this?
Where to start, even? First, sometime soon – it sounds like the end of summer 2020, though L&I won’t officially say – the City will start charging a lot more for accelerated fees (these are the fees you pay the City to pretty-please look at your application before a month has passed). [Update: it was the end of summer 2020 that accelerated fees were reinstated.] Currently, accelerated fees are $540 per building permit and $420 per zoning permit. After Philadelphia permits move online, any acceleration will run you over $2,000. There’s a huge demand for faster permit processing, and the City has responded by making property owners pay for it. [UPDATE: Accelerated reviews of building and combination permits are $2,000 as of August 2020, but zoning and individual mechanical/electrical/plumbing permits can be accelerated for only $1,050.]
Second, and related: you will need to include MEP (mechanical/electrical/plumbing) applications with all new single-family residential construction applications.
The reason those two things are related is that L&I is really pushing for complete applications: they want you to apply for all your permits, with all your contractors named, and all your plans in one massive set, all at once. If you do this – even when you’re not required to – they’ll charge just one application fee. This means that if you apply for an accelerated building permit with a full MEP set, you’ll pay that $2,000 acceleration fee for four permits: building, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing.
(No luck for zoning acceleration, though: that’s going to be $1,050, with no combination of permits except with a building permit.)
Third, access to the examiners will be restricted. Till now, if L&I took issue with an application – and L&I almost always did – you would receive a notice directly from the examiner reviewing your application. Now, you will only receive notice of the items found defective from the portal – from, basically, The City of Philadelphia. You’ll get a phone number or email for the examiner, just a general email.
Why is this happening? Because the examiners are overworked, and creating a new civil service position is very expensive. So instead of hiring the three dozen new examiners that could help, the City is preventing you, the little person, from contacting the existing, overworked examiners with your questions. (Examiners do not always like questions.)
Since the examiners can’t outright hide from all of Philadelphia, you will be given an opportunity to question them. However, you will only be able to question them in a scheduled meeting – no phone calls or emails outside of the scheduled meeting, which may be face-to-face. This part is still being worked out – we’ll update you if we learn more! [Update: these meetings are available to be scheduled as of December 2020, but most of the inspectors don’t like the new system so email is the best bet for early 2021]
In the meantime, enjoy the last days of 520-page rolls of architectural plans!