The appliances were in and the paint was dry in 20 new Central District apartments, but the doors weren’t open to tenants.
Developer Ken Tousley was still waiting for a Seattle Fire Department inspection of the addition to this building, among the final steps needed to rent the new apartments.
Email updates told him he was 57th in the city’s queue and then, puzzlingly, a few days later he was 72nd. He felt better when he got an appointment on the books, but says that was canceled on the day of when the inspector called in sick.
“You don’t build buildings to keep them empty,” said Tousley, standing inside a vacant apartment this month.
The city has been working through a backlog of requests for fire marshal inspections, a key step to getting the final OK to occupy a new building. The department blames a spate of recent retirements just as the local construction industry was bouncing back from the pandemic and projects were nearing completion.
“We have everybody running to the finish line at the same time, which has put more stress on the office,” said Tim Munnis, assistant chief of fire prevention.
For those building new apartments, the delays were the latest in a series of headaches reaching far beyond the Fire Department.
The time needed to get city permits has stretched longer in recent years. Pandemic supply chain issues have added a host of new complications.
“It’s this cascading effect of unforeseen conditions,” said Jason Manges, construction management director at Beacon Development Group.
The firm is working on ʔálʔal, an 80-unit Chief Seattle Club housing development in Pioneer Square once expected to open in early October. (ʔálʔal means “home” in Lushootseed). The project has faced long timelines to get supplies and city power before a fire inspection can take place, Manges said.
The apartments will house people experiencing homelessness, some living today in Chief Seattle Club shelters.
“If we could get them housed, we could get more people off the streets and into shelter beds,” said Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Derrick Belgarde.
For Seattle tenants, the rental market has once again become expensive and competitive, following a temporary reprieve early in the pandemic. Although Seattle saw a building boom in recent years, new jobs were added faster than new housing units, driving up rents and competition.
“It costs people money, but really it’s holding up housing being available,” said Andy Fawcett, project manager at Hybrid Assembly. His firm waited a little more than a month to get a fire marshal inspection of a 15-unit Beacon Hill apartment building this fall, he said.
Builders say fire inspections they used to be able to get in a week or two can now take a month or longer.
The Seattle Fire Department says it’s doing better than that, averaging 24 days from request to inspection. Pre-pandemic inspections generally happened within 10 to 15 days, a spokesperson said. (The department couldn’t provide exact comparisons because of a new scheduling system that began this spring.)
To inspect new construction, the department typically relies on seven to eight inspectors, but six experienced inspectors have retired in the last 14 months, said SFD spokesperson Kristin Tinsley.
Late last month, the Fire Department had more than 200 requests for inspections needing to be scheduled. The Fire Department has worked through most of that queue and scheduled 380 inspections through the rest of the year. (The department could not provide comparable numbers for past years.)
“Our inspectors’ calendars are pretty much full for the next 24, 26 days and beyond,” Munnis said.
After the pandemic initially paused many construction projects, “every project started back up at the exact same time,” Munnis said.
Munnis said he expects wait times to improve, but couldn’t offer an estimate for when that might happen.
With limited inspectors and others in training, the city is prioritizing “city-designated affordable housing projects, hospital projects and shelters for the unhoused,” Tinsley said.
Community Roots Housing at first expected to wait months for an inspection at a nearly century-old building in Belltown the organization had renovated. Then, the city prioritized the project because it was affordable housing and bumped up the inspection, said spokesperson Jessica Sherwin.
For Tousley, an inspector arrived this week, more than six weeks after he says a subcontractor first requested the inspection.
The market-rate apartments will rent for about $1,600 a month for one-bedroom apartments and about $1,900 for two-bedroom apartments, he said.
“Workforce housing is something the city needs,” he said.
Developer Jake McKinstry said he recently waited several weeks to get an inspection for a 176-unit apartment building, also set to house an Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, near the Othello light rail station.
Alongside market-rate apartments, 40% of the building will be affordable for those making 80% of area median income or less, about $65,000 for an individual.
“I have a lot of sympathy for them,” McKinstry said of the city. Still, “it does add a real level of uncertainty.”