Vancouver aims to expedite building permit approvals as applications spike
Building firms say permit backlogs have created logistical difficulties on top of rising construction costs
Vancouver city council has unanimously approved a motion directing staff to look into the pros and cons of guaranteed wait times for building permits amid a soaring number of requests across the city.
Submissions for residential and commercial renovation permits are up 25 per cent from last year, according to the city, while the number of permit applications for new builds of single-family homes, duplexes and laneway houses has more than doubled.
The city says the surge comes as pandemic restrictions begin to ease, and while it's reporting progress speeding up the processing of permit applications, construction firms say the permit backlog has led to disrupted and stalled projects over the last year, in addition to rising construction costs.
"Building applications are exploding in our city," acknowledged Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. "We're full-on recovering from the pandemic, and folks want to get building new homes and renovating."
Other North American cities have already implemented guaranteed wait times for permits, including the City of Surrey, which introduced the practice last year.
Doug Langford, the president of construction company JDL Homes, says the permit backlog has created logistical difficulties leaving projects in limbo.
"We risk just cancelling projects altogether," said Langford. "If we're relying on the city to process a permit and I don't have any permits, I really can't do any work. Nobody's getting employed, and nobody's getting paid, so it's all a trickle-down effect."
In the interim, he says the cost of materials and services has increased. One project took 13 months to be approved.
"And in that time, the cost of the house has increased by $300,000 in that year," said Langford, who says he's also frustrated by a lack of communication from the city.
"There's no real structure when you call to ask, 'What stage is it at? And if it's at this stage, how many more weeks can we expect?'"
Not knowing an approximate date for a permit approval can put added stress on homeowners, he adds.
"They're going to have to uproot their whole family, move out, go find a place to live."
"We end up at times taking the brunt of their frustration because we're organizing everything and so much of it is out of our control."
Report expected early next year
Stewart says a report on guaranteed timelines is slated for early next year.
He cautioned that the upcoming municipal election and the swearing-in of new council members could compromise budgets and priorities.
"We need to get things built as quickly as possible, but it has to be done in a safe way."
"There may be little things we can do right away, but we'll see if we can accelerate it and explore some big moves next year."
But Langford says while it's a first step, it's not good enough.
"It's not very helpful at all," he said. "When we're sitting down with our clients and going through the planning stages, we just have to give them the work on the assumption it's going to take a year or more to get a permit and do the best we can."
The city's Permitting Task Force, set up a year ago to investigate and apply proposals to speed up processing times, says it has made progress amid the surge in submissions and is now processing more than 35 per cent of applications compared to 2021.
It says homeowners and businesses can now expect low-complexity renovation permits to be turned around in as little as two weeks.
The task force's presentation to council on June 7 reported improved wait times over the past year, which it says is the result of streamlined policies, an increase in staff and the development of new tools. The group says it intends to focus on smaller-scale developments.
A list of the task force's actions to streamline permit turnarounds can be found on the City of Vancouver's website.
Langford welcomes the city's initiatives to power through the increase in applications but says his company is still burdened by the backlog's fallout, including projects still in the works.
"This is happening in one of the most expensive cities in the world," he said. "The costs have been very frustrating."
With files from Christina Jung