Georgia’s DeKalb County encompasses much of the city of Atlanta, making it the second-most populous county, and in turn, busy permit-wise. But local remodelers found that as demand skyrocketed in recent years, their ability to take advantage continues to be stunted by an unresponsive permit office.
“We survived COVID, we may not survive DeKalb Co! This is serious for my company,” wrote one local remodeler.
After the county’s permit office shut down during initial COVID closures, it never quite came back, according to David Michelson, partner of Alair Homes Decatur and president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry’s (NARI) Atlanta chapter.
These frustrations led Michelson and NARI Atlanta Executive Director Kathryn Stempler to take matters into their own hands, surveying members and presenting their findings to their local news investigative team at FOX 5 Atlanta.
The DeKalb permit office went from in-person to virtual and remains that way. The result, according to local remodelers, was extended approval times and no communication.
Part of NARI Atlanta's leadership team. From left to right: Kris Griffin, Kathryn Stempler, Amanda Griffey, JD Crill, David Michelson, Chris Lalomia
Where a permit may have once taken Michelson a month to receive, the post-closure process took three times longer. And if an issue arose with a permit, there were often no notes of feedback or a way to get someone on the phone.
“We can't produce, we can’t earn money. And if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in permitting and no one has an answer, your clients may finally say, ‘Maybe we'll just postpone the project. Maybe we'll just do it later. You know, it seems to be too difficult, right now,’” says Michelson. “Or some people might have to say, ‘Why don't we just do it without a permit?’”
The NARI Atlanta survey gathered responses from 24 members, requesting feedback on the most efficient and least efficient county permit offices.
DeKalb county emerged as overwhelmingly slow, with responses such as, “It just took me almost five months to get a permit for an addition, with no special conditions, and I believe it would have taken longer if the homeowner had not contacted her county commissioner to look into the delay.”
And, “Permit for kitchen remodel submitted in May 2021, No response or progress was made until I received an email acknowledging my submittal on Jan 14, 2022.”
Compared to the surrounding counties—Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett—DeKalb county was the only one that did not see 2021 permit numbers surpass pre-pandemic numbers, according to research conducted by FOX 5.
“The sting of trying to follow the rules and do things the proper way and being met with nothing, essentially what feels like a middle finger, that I think is what made it so painful and aggravating,” says Stempler.
Stempler and Michelson say they previously attempted to contact the office and higher-ups in the county to bring this issue to attention, but all attempts were unsuccessful.
It wasn’t until after the news segment was published that the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners requested additional information to look into the issue and announced it would be reopening its office on July 1.
The result, Michelson says, is pride and an example of how the industry can come together in support of eachother.
"We're standing up for ourselves is what we're doing, really," he says. "We're extremely proud of this effort of what we're doing here, trying to make a difference."
Calls to the DeKalb County permit office and Board of Commissioners were not returned by publishing date.