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B.C. housing permit changes brings ‘cautious optimism’ for constructors

Evan Saunders
B.C. housing permit changes brings ‘cautious optimism’ for constructors

Construction industry leaders are welcoming and wary of the Government of British Columbia’s attempt to simplify the housing permit approval process.

On Jan. 16, B.C. announced the new Permitting Strategy for Housing, intended to streamline homebuilding and reduce backlog by creating a “one-stop-shop” window for all housing-related permits.

“Hopefully what the province is going to do will have an impact,” said Independent Contractors and Businesses of B.C President Chris Gardner.

“We are in the middle of an affordability crisis across much of Canada and certainly in major centres in British Columbia. The challenge that we’re facing is getting supply onto the market.  It just simply takes too long to get projects approved and permitted.”

Ron Rapp, CEO of the Homebuilders Association of Vancouver, said the move is good for the industry.

“It’s certainly welcome news. We have actually been working to address this problem with the province for more than five years,” Rapp said.

He explained the ability to address things such as the Water Act, the Heritage Act, permitting with the Ministry of Transportation and other provincial authorities under one house will simplify the process for builders.

“Just going to a one-stop type of scenario instead of having to deal with three, four or five individual ministries will be helpful,” he said.

Rapp said the announcement and introduction of the Housing Supply Act at the end of 2022 shows that “there’s a bit of a change in culture (in the provincial government) and it’s a culture of looking to find ways to make things work as opposed to creating obstructions or a culture of ‘No,’ if you will.”

Neil Moody, chief executive officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of British Columbia (CHBABC), said his organization is “cautiously optimistic.”

“This announcement responds to a long-standing challenge the residential industry has faced when moving through the complex, multi-layered provincial approval process,” Moody said.

This cautious optimism was shared by British Columbia Construction Association president Chris Atchison.

“No one is under the illusion that this change is going to revolutionize our current situation. There is still a long way to go,” Atchison aid, adding “any progress toward shorter permitting times is welcome.”


Hiring More Staff

Part of the provincial announcement included the immediate hiring of 42 new full-time staff to address the backlog of building permits with the plan to hire around 240 as time goes on.

“Staffing is certainly a key element to that. In some instances, some of these approvals were being administered through various departments at various ministries which were only being given the attention of one or two staff people,” said Rapp.

“In the face of a significant volume of applications it’s obviously going to extend the timeline. Getting more hands on deck is certainly going to be helpful and hopefully will expedite that process.”

Atchison said hiring more staff is a short-term solution and advocated for more long-term planning.

“In the longer term we need a more sustainable strategic solution that looks at all the barriers to efficiency. Everything from staffing to technology, permitting requirements, policies and regulations to streamlining across government,” Atchison said.


Municipal Problems

However, all four construction leaders noted the change will only help with provincial permits whereas municipal permitting is often the true cause of building delays.

“The real issue here is going to be the general approach that city halls make across this province, that really is where the bottlenecks and the costs come together for first-time homebuyers,” Gardner said, “It’s not uncommon for projects to take longer to be approved and permitted than they do to build.”

“Since municipal government approval is the first step in building new housing, change is also needed at that level and the province has a role to play in improving those permitting approval times,” added Atchison.

Gardner suggested two possible ways the intersection of municipal and provincial policy around homebuilding could be approached.

“They get cities around the table and try and work out some sort of accord or agreement on timelines to get projects approved. They haven’t done that yet,” Gardner said.

“The other option is they just say, ‘Well, we’re going to bring in a framework’ and just impose it.”

Moody said CHBABC is advocating for the creation of a provincial reporting system for municipalities to submit yearly reports on development applications.

“The implementation of a transparent, reliable and standardized source for timelines and quantity of approved housing data can ensure that supply shortages relative to housing demand can be anticipated and acted upon as early as possible,” said Moody.

The CHBABC will be working with the province to detail explicit timeline goals for approval processes.

“The homebuilding industry works on predictability and setting a ‘goal post’ for these types of approvals is important. It will take some time and discussion with the provincial government to establish those timelines,” said Moody.

Follow the author on Twitter @JOC_Evan.

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