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Why it's taking up to 10 months to issue a building permit in Vancouver

Data disputes city's claims of four-week processing time
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Local builder Perdip Moore stands in front of one of his projects in East Vancouver.

It’s no longer a shock for Perdip Moore if it takes nearly a year to secure a building permit in Vancouver.

“In reality, the whole process takes close to 10 months to get a permit in the City of Vancouver, from the day that I actually give them the paperwork until the day that I can actually be physically working on site,” the Vancouver builder said.

The City of Vancouver’s open data portal is revealing precisely how long it’s taking for projects to get underway nearly a year since Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC Vancouver party swept into council with a majority mandate – and a promise to simplify and speed up the permitting process.

Obtaining a building permit for a duplex home from the City of Vancouver in 2023 is taking a median of 325.5 days as of 2023, according to the open data portal. That’s nearly 11 months.

This measurement is based on 128 building permits issued this year under the permit category of a low-density new build. The number of days are determined by the date at which an application generates a permit number to when the permit is issued.

Other housing types face similarly long wait times to obtain permits:

·      Single-detached homes under the low-density new build category: 71 building permits issued in 2023 / median time to obtain a permit: 260 days (about 8.5 months).

·      Single-detached homes with a secondary suite under the same category: 146 building permits issued / median time to obtain a permit: 282.5 days (nine months). 

·      Laneway homes: 96 building permits issued / median time to obtain a permit: 272.5 days (just under nine months).

City council’s Permitting Improvement Program has been dedicated to simplifying how permits are issued and the creation of digital tools for permit submissions. 

“That's not what they've actually done. They've just moved the way you apply. The goalposts have been moved and that's why now it seems like the permits are being issued faster,” said Moore. 

The average permit takes about four weeks to be issued in Vancouver, according to a statement from the City of Vancouver.

But the city acknowledged that variations in this timeline exist due to staff turnover, completeness of the application, workload of the permitting department at the time of submission and the responsiveness of applicants in making necessary changes.

The open portal data demonstrates that nothing has changed, said Avi Barzelai, owner of Barzelai Building Corp.

“I think there are hundreds of things they can do that I've proposed to councillors, city staff and basically anybody that will listen, but I don't feel like … anybody's really listening,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, whatever they're doing or not doing is not improving the system.” 

A bogged down process

Many of the obstacles that prevent permits from being issued in a timely manner are due to steps such as the landscape review process, asbestos removal process and the recycling of structures to be demolished, Moore said. 

While he doesn’t believe that the city should get rid of these steps, he says improvements are required to ensure that they don’t bog down much-needed building permits. 

All these improvements can be done internally and would allow him to sell a half-duplex for $100,000 less and six months faster, said Moore, who specializes in the construction of laneway and duplex homes in East Vancouver.

He said one of the “goalposts” slowing down permit processing time is the pre-application period.

This period accounts for two to three weeks where applications are processed, said Barzelai. This is not factored into the amount of time listed in the city’s open data portal.

Moore described the next portion of the process, the landscape review process, as the “biggest bottleneck.” 

This step involves a third-party arborist report that must be submitted to the city, which comes at a cost to the builder.

“It's also on the plans that we submit to get approved. It's page one. So the plan-checker who's already reviewing page one can look at the report and say ‘Yes, does page one and the report match? Yes, they do … Why do you need a whole different department to review if page one and page two match?” he said.

The City of Vancouver said in an email that tree retention is a priority for the city and the landscape review process is necessary to ensure compliance with the city’s tree protection bylaw.

The asbestos removal process also adds costs of roughly $2,500, due to the city requiring a qualified professional to ensure this step is performed correctly. A report is submitted to the City of Vancouver’s environmental department.

“I don't want to take that step away. I see a lot of value in it, but I want to do what everybody else is doing,” Moore said.

Across the province, asbestos removal is overseen by WorkSafeBC and municipalities such as Burnaby do not require a third-party qualified professional. 

“The city relies on qualified professionals to help ensure an efficient review process and permit reviews for asbestos removal are generally completed within five to 10 business days,” said the City of Vancouver in an email. 

The city requires the submission of receipts of all recycled materials for review by the environmental department before being able to continue construction, which can add two months to the permitting process. 

Since July 2014, Vancouver has required 75 per cent of demolition materials be recycled in order to reduce construction and demolition waste.

“Improving permitting is a top priority and city staff will be considering Mr. Moore’s suggestions as we continue to streamline and simplify the city’s permitting processes,” said city manager Paul Mochrie in a statement to Glacier Media.

Permit concerns for new zoning policies 

Moore and Barzelai said they are concerned that reformed zoning policies like Vancouver’s “missing middle” motion will run into challenges if permitting is not improved. 

City council voted to approve the “missing middle” housing motion on Sept. 15. The decision will permit up to six homes on lots previously reserved for single-family homes or duplexes. For larger lots, up to eight homes for secured rental housing will be allowed. 

This is in addition to consolidating nine different residential zoning types into a single zoning type.

“I haven't seen anything on the part of council or staff that says, ‘We're going to create this initiative where these proposals, like new multiplex proposals, are going to get fast-tracked or something like that,” Barzelai said.

Based on the data, he said that realistically it would take a year for a proposal with multiple units to be issued a permit. 

“It just goes to show how slowly these things move. And I don't have a lot of hope for reform in that regard,” Barzelai said.

Moore said that it is builders like him who are building “missing middle” homes that council’s recent motion is geared towards. 

The term “missing middle” refers to housing types that could fall between single-family homes and condominium towers.

“If you can't actually have a process to give us those permits in place, there's no benefit to guys like us to actually invest that money and build these homes. [If] they're not going to fix the policy, those homes are never going to get built,” he said.

clwilson@glaciermedia.ca