Mayor punts permit-delay issue as costs mount for Vancouver builders, homeowners

In years to come the civic historians, if they bother to tackle the chore, will remain baffled by how Vancouver made such a mess of the system that issues permits to do small and big things.

How did a city so obviously in need of building so thwart itself?

How did it so mistrust and micromanage even the most straightforward construction, renovation and generation of business?

How did its deliberations become so protracted as to buckle businesses, hobble households and run counter to the obvious urgency of the needs of the community?

A permit delay adds expense, squeezes cash flow, destabilizes labour availability and ultimately costs the builder and in turn the buyer or spender.

The latest effort to loosen the Gordian Knot of deliberating upon and issuing permits was a no-brainer. A simple motion last week by two councillors, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung, aimed to improve the permit system – not in a game-changing way, but by asking staff for a plan within 30 days to modestly fix regulations and reduce the timeline for issuing permits starting in September 2022.

But the mayor, perhaps sensing his thunder about to be stolen in advance of an election, found $1 million to suffocate the momentum more than a year. He amended the motion to finance a task force. Rather than 30 days, this group will take until June 2022 to report back – rather like punting instead of throwing a simple first-down pass. It guarantees nothing until after the October 2022 election.

The term “task force” rarely produces much “force” for the “task.” It is a puck-ragger or an under-the-rug sweeper. If there is urgency you want to wish away, create the task force and hope everyone forgets.

This is in keeping with the modus operandi of the mayor, who has an inherent way of delegating upward and downward. He doesn’t take the bull by its horns; rather, he sends the bull across the ring to a more motivated matador after waving the red cape and jumping into the crowd for safety.

His office exuded self-congratulation for taking control of the issue. In perpetuating sluggishness, he breeds further disillusionment and anger among those whose livelihoods are tied to decision-making within dependable timelines – not to mention households that want to tackle renovations in the pandemic and can’t get permission.

A permit is not a permit is not a permit. There are many shapes and sizes and substances to them. Vancouver is pokey on all of them. Anecdotally most of us know people who waited and waited and waited on a meagre renovation permit, but at the higher level it is not uncommon for delays to suffocate a smaller developer or subdue a larger one.

A study last year by the Loco BC consultancy suggested delays cost a business $722,000 on average. Take a breath and study that number for a moment.

Every year that the city sits on a development permit, the cost of building (thus buying) rises by more than 5% and the ancillary expenses tally and tally. Think of how that makes Vancouver even more unaffordable. When last studied, the typical time to wait for permits or licensing was 8.2 months, with the bigger ones the slower among them. Neighbouring municipalities are relative speed merchants.

It is not as if the city didn’t some time ago recognize this and hire additional staff. But the new staff proved more conservative than the incumbents and slowed the process. Everyone immersed in this agrees that something changed a little while back to extend the normal four- to five-week application process to about four months, weeks now instead of days merely to initiate.

It is fair to say there are differences of opinion on the next steps to develop Vancouver. Some want a lot of supply, some want a lot of discernment on what kind of supply. Regardless of the perspective, there is agreement that a development permit – which is, after all, simply an approval of an earlier decision and not the decision itself – ought not to be any kind of barrier. It could be issued the day a decision is made.

Any city worth its salt has a list of firms that it trusts and certifies to fast-track within zoning bylaws certain-sized buildings. If they have experience, they bring forward plans and don’t get shaken down. Vancouver treats every proposal as if its proponent just fell off the turnip truck. Its arrogance about knowing better is an absurdity.

The result might not be central, but it is material in why our housing supply is inaccessible to so many early-stage buyers and middle-income families. The city compounds an affordability problem it did not make but somehow has found a way to deepen.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.