Using Tech to Streamline Government, Starting With Housing
Imagine this scenario: You want to build a second story addition on your house. Before getting deep into planning, you need one simple question answered — can I build it?
Thinking it will be a quick answer, you and an architect friend head to the city planning office.
The first visit goes seemingly well and, after more visits and multiple meetings with different planners, you hire your friend to design the permit set plans and apply for a site permit.
That’s where the problems start.
The planner who receives your application isn’t who you met with before and, during a thorough analysis, she finds issues that her colleagues missed. These “issues” mean major revisions to your original plan, a public hearing including neighborhood notification and possible legal exemptions.
Months later, you get an answer to your question: Yes, you can build it — but only with major changes.
Faced with paying for a redesign and submitting another application — only the first hurdle in this process, as you find out — or dealing with cramped quarters, you abandon your plans. The reality of wasted time and money starts to sink in.
Scenes like this are common across the United States. In a nation with a severe housing crunch, planning office errors like enforcing incorrect requirements, missing important ordinances or wrongly denying permits delay the construction of badly needed housing.
City planners themselves aren’t at fault. The primary issue is regulatory complexity and lack of efficient technology to navigate it.
A quick search reveals just how burdensome the permitting process is.
In San Diego County, California, it took 19 steps to approve a basic building permit, and only after step 12 did applicants learn what changes would be required. In Boulder, Colorado, an applicant must apply for and receive 18 permits before construction. In Miami, Florida, the first step of the 17-step “Guide to Getting a Permit” warns, “Depending on your application, additional permits/permissions from other city departments and/or from other government entities may be required.”
Long processes and manual reviews are common at many planning offices. They leave plenty of room for errors and affect nearly everyone. The Regulatory Transparency Project wrote, “regulatory burdens account for nearly a quarter of the cost of building single-family homes across the nation’s major residential markets. Just the costs associated with the development stage … account for 60% of regulatory costs.”
The bottleneck starts at the top, at the very moment when homeowners or developers are deciding whether to move forward with a project.
For multifamily developers, the complex permitting process means hiring architects, contractors, engineers and consultants for multiple rounds of revisions — a process-intensive exercise that discourages developers from building in certain cities.
For individual homeowners with limited resources, uncertainty in time and cost can take an emotional toll, depleting the urge to build and further eroding trust in local government.
The institutions tasked with serving the public good are making the housing crisis worse. Despite the need for disruption, many cities are not embracing change or new technologies fast enough, and the average citizen pays the price.
This is where artificial intelligence has an important role, specifically Complaw®.
Complaw — or computational law — enables computers to work and reason with complex regulations. Using a Complaw system, anyone can understand what regulations mean for their particular situation.
Until recently, computational law was largely theoretical and its commercial applications limited, not to mention technically burdensome to build and maintain. Now, Symbium has proven this technology can be built and maintained at scale, with implications for all interactions between the public and many complex regulatory systems.
Like TurboTax, Complaw applications embed relevant rules and regulations in a platform. However, Complaw’s possibilities extend beyond the tax code. Any regulation-heavy public interaction — planning, insurance, financial services — is ripe for disruption by Complaw.
Disruption starts with the largest industry on the planet — government.
In the earlier scenario, had the planning department used Complaw and made it available to the public, the applicant would have known immediately their permit wouldn’t be approved, and would also have understood the necessary revisions, saving time and money. Plus, they wouldn’t even need initial draft plans.
Using Complaw-enabled tools, the homeowner could input a project scope, visualize what’s possible in just a few clicks, understand what is required for approval and submit a permit on the spot — without ever stepping into a government office.
Complaw is already providing value in the housing sector. In 2019, Symbium launched a Complaw-powered public portal that helps people determine whether an accessory dwelling unit, or “granny flat,” is allowed on any California property, visualize it on a given property, and understand the steps for getting one built. This extended into partnerships with cities including San Francisco, San Jose and San Mateo, streamlining the development of ADUs and alleviating a bureaucratic headache for city planning offices. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Expanding on its initial technology, Symbium relaunched last year as a property information portal. At Symbium.com anyone can learn virtually anything about any property in California — including permit history information, which was previously accessible only by visiting a city or county’s planning or records office.
Complaw applications don’t end at your property line. My brilliant co-founder, Mike Genesereth, penned a Stanford white paper using the example of “a cop in the back seat.” Wouldn’t it be great if your car’s computer communicated everything you need to know about your trip — which lanes you can use, which parking spots are available at a certain time, and whether you can make a U-turn at a particular light?
This is what a world with Complaw will feel like: real-time regulatory information when you need it — not after you have been given a parking ticket.
Simplifying the residential permitting process is just the beginning for Complaw, and for Symbium.
Government regulations don’t have to be complicated and they don’t have to be roadblocks.
A new vision of government-relationship management is the first step in making this a reality.
Leila Banijamali is co-founder and CEO of Symbium Corp., the Complaw® company, which she launched in 2019 with her Stanford co-founders. Prior to launching Symbium, Banijamali founded businesses in the technology media industries in addition to acting as outside general counsel to hundreds of tech companies. She is based in San Francisco, California. You can reach Symbium by email, LinkedIn or on Twitter @symbiumhq.
In The News
As the Biden administration debates how to structure broad-sweeping student loan relief, many are pointing to the rising cost of... Read More
As the Biden administration debates how to structure broad-sweeping student loan relief, many are pointing to the rising cost of higher education as the main culprit for the student debt crisis. According to U.S. News and World Report, in 2002 the average yearly tuition at an... Read More
On Monday, June 9, Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.,, Chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on... Read More
On Monday, June 9, Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.,, Chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, introduced himself to the American people in simple and stark terms that underlined not only the critical nature of this committee and... Read More
The world is now seeing its supply chain limits put to the test with multiple struggles happening at once: China’s... Read More
The world is now seeing its supply chain limits put to the test with multiple struggles happening at once: China’s COVID-19 lockdowns, Russia’s war against Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic’s impacts on labor, and unwanted policies like ending the North American Free Trade Agreement. In my work... Read More
As our economy starts to bounce back from the pandemic, employers are struggling to hire enough people to meet demand.... Read More
As our economy starts to bounce back from the pandemic, employers are struggling to hire enough people to meet demand. Meanwhile, in the United States it is estimated that 82% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared with 4.2% of the overall population. This... Read More
Low-income neighborhoods face long roads to recovery as they are often disproportionately affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding.... Read More
Low-income neighborhoods face long roads to recovery as they are often disproportionately affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding. Yet, instead of paying an equitable amount for the coverage they need, they continue to subsidize flood insurance for affluent, coastal communities. However, implementing a new... Read More
The crypto markets have been on a roller coaster ride in recent months. But market downturns and media buzz are... Read More
The crypto markets have been on a roller coaster ride in recent months. But market downturns and media buzz are nothing new in the crypto space. What’s unique this time around is that the crypto market’s recent volatility coincides with policymakers’ focused attention on the space... Read More