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Vancouver aims to improve lengthy development process

Russell Hixson
Vancouver aims to improve lengthy development process

The City of Vancouver is implementing changes to try and improve its development permit processes, as long wait times have frustrated developers and held back housing supply for a growing region.

"We continue to receive a record number of applications and are putting a high priority on improving our processes so these developments can get built as soon as possible," said Kaye Krishna, general manager of development, buildings and licensing with the city. "We have worked with industry stakeholders to identify ways to improve the process and we will put many of these ideas into action this year, including prioritizing affordable housing and streamlining small home development."

In 2016, the city saw a two per cent increase in permit applications over 2015, the second highest volume it has seen to date. For 2017, initial data shows that permit applications may out-pace last year.

To improve the process, the city intends to prioritize affordable housing development, simplify policies and regulations for low density housing, create more district schedules to replace rezoning policies in community plans and review the system for establishing development charges.

The city also intends to expand new online tools to allow developer support and communicate service targets.

Bob de Wit, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association, said his association as well as other stakeholders have been giving input on the changes and are optimistic the situation will improve.

"We support it," said de Wit. "The last few years have been a disaster."

He explained that in addition to limited staff, much of Vancouver’s staff have turned over and some are still gaining experience. This is compounded by the fact that the city also began implementing its new computer system. Building codes are also constantly changing, causing more delays. In addition to the B.C. Building Code, Vancouver has its own building code. Both take time for inspectors to learn and catch up on.

De Wit said he believes Krishna, who joined the city last summer, was brought in to help solve some of these problems and is optimistic she will do so. Before taking on her current role, Krishna served as a principal with HR&A Advisors, a real estate and planning firm. She was also chief of staff and deputy commissioner of strategy and operations for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. She also spent several years as a management consultant.

One of the major changes the city is considering is an expedited stream for reputable, experienced builders. De Wit called it a "Nexus stream" where reputable builders can have their applications fast-tracked or even skip certain steps.

"We are optimistic with the new leadership, because Lord knows we have been waiting for something to be fixed," he said.

Housing development reached an all-time high from 2014 to 2016, peaking at over 7,500 units in 2015 and over 7,100 in 2016. Last year 2,602 multiple dwellings were added to the market and there are currently 1,458 new residential construction projects with applications in process.

In addition 500 laneway homes were approved and roughly 8,300 building permit applications were processed in 2016.

According to the city, since 2013, major project development permit wait times have improved significantly.

According to research released last year by the Fraser Institute, to get approval for construction, a typical residential developer in Vancouver spends on average $38,333 per individual dwelling unit (30 per cent more than the region-wide average) and waits 15 months before a shovel hits the ground.

In an aggregate ranking of 10, the District of North Vancouver comes out as the most regulated municipality, earning low marks in construction approval times — 16.1 months compared to the Lower Mainland average of 11.2 months — and in the percentage of residential development requiring rezoning with 95 per cent versus an average of 68 per cent.

In Burnaby, which shares a border with Vancouver, homebuilders report an average of $17,542 in costs and fees.

Metro Vancouver forecasts housing demand to grow by 32,000 households by 2026. Vancouver officials expect it will exceed this projected demand by 50 per cent by approving permits for 47,000 new housing units over the next 10 years. Almost 60 per cent of these units are currently in the development pipeline as rezoning or development permit applications.

"Although we have a record number of permits being processed, we want to ensure that housing is being built to meet the demands of people who want to live in our city. We want to ensure that they have access to different types of housing and are close to transit and amenities to make their lives more affordable," said Gil Kelley, the city’s general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability. "Through land use changes, community planning and rezoning policies the city is able to focus on the needs for the future and creating the right supply of housing."

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