Greetings from Permit Philly’s top secret quarantine lair! We are furiously washing our hands and really getting deep into Netflix’s recommended list of Intense Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead. (It’s mostly Salt. Don’t judge.) We hope you and yours are safe, but also hope we can use some of this newly free time to let you know what’s happening to Philadelphia permits during the COVID-19 shutdown. [UPDATE: Construction is legal again as of May 1st; however, there are a lot of limitations on the sort of construction that can continue. Notably, only permits issued on or before March 20 allow construction for now. Review Philadelphia’s guide to restarting construction right here. You can also read the Governor’s order for reopening construction sites. Philly city offices are still closed, so read on for an explanation of how permits are being processed during the closure.]
When Permit Philly last posted about operations during the pandemic, Philly’s Department of Licenses and Inspections had just instituted a new online permitting system at the same time the coronavirus forced Philadelphia city government to shutter most offices. From March 16th to about April 1st, it was very difficult to figure out exactly what was still operational, and if it was still possible to get a permit. Things have settled, however, and even during the coronavirus Philadelphia permitting offices are still running. Here’s what you need to know, and what has changed:
1. The online system is up and running… and kind of working well!
We’ve now had a chance to send some permits through the online system for review, and the results are not half bad! The user interface is very unwieldy, and you can still find yourself stuck in a paperwork loop even when the paperwork is digital. But it appears that certain reviews are happening faster than they did before, and the time it takes to pay for and pick up an approved permit has cut to almost nothing. Given how poorly the jump to online licensing went, this is a great result!
2. L&I is still accepting online applications and is reviewing existing applications
The staff is still working from home, with a skeleton crew at various offices to help organize things and process paperwork. You can’t actually build anything until the government says so, but you can at least get your permits in order (and Permit Philly is here to help!).
3. You couldn’t submit revised plans through the online system if you applied on paper… except now maybe you can?
L&I initially put out word that we’d all be able to submit revised documents for permit applications through the online system, as long as a special request was submitted to transfer the paper permit to the online portal. This was overturned just a few days later: if you wanted to submit revised plans and your application was made on paper – before the online system was put in place – you would have to mail the plans and documents directly to Licenses and Inspections, at least while coronavirus in Philadelphia was forcing a shutdown of City offices.
Now, however, there is an option to submit a request to submit revised plans electronically. From attempting to submit revised plans by mail, Permit Philly can confirm that no one at L&I seems to be actually receiving packages. So we recommend that you use the form and submit your revisions electronically.
4. You can’t apply online for make-safe permits – you have to schedule a meeting, in person
This is, frankly, the craziest idea L&I has put out there: in the middle of a global pandemic, they are requiring anyone who applies for a make-safe permit to do so in person, at a meeting scheduled with one Licenses and Inspections examiner. (For reference: a make-safe permit is a permit application for any building that is under violation for structural defects – like an unbraced wall, or a floor that’s about to collapse.)
It’s not only potentially dangerous, it’s logistically ridiculous: for the first time in L&I’s history, there is an online system in place, that is working decently well, that could be easily used to process make-safe permits. Yet these permits – and only these – have to be requested in person. That’s the system, until Tom Wolf and/or Jim Kenney tells us that the risk of novel coronavirus in Philadelphia is low enough to venture back out into the world. Of course, at that point we don’t know what will happen to the make-safe permit procedure: maybe then it will be moved online.
5. The review boards are closed till May… but probably longer
If you had a ZBA or Board of Building Standards hearing between March 24th and April 30th, it’s been canceled and rescheduled till… well, no one is sure just yet. The ZBA says it’s going to reopen in May, but with national officials saying cases of coronavirus in Philadelphia could explode, everything is simply uncertain. We’re guessing, from checking the news (when we are not watching Salt), that the ZBA will be closed till mid-May or even June. In the meantime, check the Licenses and Inspections and City of Philadelphia websites for updates.
6. Currently, nobody is canceling permits… but be on your toes and try to get your permits transferred to the online system
If you have an outstanding bill due to Licenses and Inspections for a permit, or a refusal that needs to be appealed to the Zoning Board, it just got a 30-day extension when the City shut down on March 16th. However, with all the mayhem from coronavirus in Philadelphia, and L&I’s overwhelming volume of work, it seems like no permits of any kind, for any reason, are being canceled.
However, because of all that mayhem, there’s a danger that permits get lost – either literally (this happens a lot these days), or just canceled without anyone notifying you. To be safe, you should transfer all reviewed, unpaid applications to the City’s new permitting portal.
And when you’re done that, you do what we’re all doing these days: you wait. Waiting on L&I is the one thing that coronavirus hasn’t changed about Philadelphia.