Vancouver’s invisible housing crisis: Huge delays in building permits. Comments by designer/builder Bryn Davidson (Lanefab)

Bryn Davidson, Lanefab

Bryn Davidson. Photo credit: Lanefab

Introduction: A recent newspaper article highlighted one family’s frustrating experiences when trying to get permits from the City of Vancouver for a home renovation (Attempts to renovate, instead of demolish, land Kitsilano family in city hall reno hell, by John Mackie, Vancouver Sun, 16-July-2016). How many cases are there like that? Online comments to the article plus a Twitter discussion pointed out that problem is not rare by any means and that there are systemic issues at City Hall leading to huge and costly delays in permits being issued.

 

Bryn Davidson ((Principal/Design, with Lanefab, Twitter @Lanefab) contributed many insightful comments to the discussion, so we asked him for more, and he kindly cooperated. Below is his contribution, in Q&A format. Perhaps the most poignant comment was this:

“To my mind, addressing permitting times could result in a larger impact on housing supply than either the effort to crack down on vacant homes or short term rentals.”

City Hall just created a new general manager position, to lead a new department (Development Services, Buildings and Licensing), and her responsibilities include the challenge to “transform [the City’s] permitting and licensing processes and improve service and turnaround times for applicants.” So maybe we can expect to see some improvements in permit processing times this year.

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Q&A with Bryn Davidson (Principal/Design, with Lanefab)

Give us a quick background on you/ Lanefab?

Lanefab passive house design

Example of a passive house design by Lanefab

We are a design/build firm crafting full size homes and lane houses. We built the city’s first lane house in 2010, and – since then – we have built many of the top energuide rated homes in the city. For years we’ve worked closely with both staff and council to improve the rules and regulations around lane houses and green buildings. We have some strong opinions about permitting, but in general we’re proud to be part of a city that has ambitious green goals and a willingness to be a leader.

What kind of permitting delays are you facing?

Our company mostly deals with fairly simple permits in the “RS” (single family) zones in the city. At the moment, it is taking about 4 months for a lane house permit and about 6 months for a main house. In the past (pre 2014) we might have expected 6 weeks to two months as a processing time but for the last couple of years the delays have been much longer. If you’re doing a ‘conditional’ application, or one that requires a development permit (in addition to the building permit) then it can be even longer. It can take 1.5 to 2 years to complete the design and permitting of some projects in the “RT” (duplex) zones. I often suggest to clients that they sell their RT lot and buy RS!

Where are the delays coming from?

It’s a perfect storm of demand, new regulations, and some mis-steps on the part of the City. There are record numbers of projects being submitted, and the staff are totally swamped. I can empathize with that, but at some point if we’re going to talk about housing as being a ‘crisis’ then we need to respond in kind.

The big trigger was the rollout of the new building code that was originally supposed to happen mid 2014 but was enacted in January of 2015. The new code brought in a wide range of new requirements related to energy efficiency, including the need to do walls that are more insulated than the 2×6 framed standard most people were used to. Because there was a lot of anxiety about this change, there was a big wave of submissions as builders tried to get their project in before the code went into effect. Now, after enactment, we’re dealing with a whole city full of builders and regulators who are struggling to adapt to the new systems.

On top of these building code changes there were a range of other policy shifts as well; new requirements for making homes more ‘accessible’ for the elderly and disabled, new tree retention rules, and rules targeting the demolition of old houses.

In principle we – as a company – support the Greenest City goals and the intent of these various rule updates, but the layers of good intentions transformed into a maze of bureaucracy. In 2014/2015 I think that council really missed the mark by asking staff to take on a whole lot of additional scope, but not properly staffing or funding the transition. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

What is the City doing in response?

This wave of permit applications seemed entirely predictable (to those of us in the industry) but it seemed to take the City by surprise.

It got pretty crazy in late 2014/early 2015.

We were pre-booking intake appointments 6 months out. We were booking an appointment just to drop off the drawings, and we were booking it before even starting the design work.

We heard stories of intake appointments being made for houses that were being offered for sale, so that the new buyer/builder would already be in the queue. At a certain point the system became entirely divorced from reality, and the City took the sensible step of replacing the intake queue with a first come, first served process. More recently the City hired a batch of new plan checkers, and they’re now rolling out new software to manage the permitting process. As of the last few months they’ve started requiring payment of permit fees up front so as to weed out those who weren’t fully committed to the process.

The City is definitely engaged in a concerted effort to make improvements, but I still don’t think that council really quite views it as a ‘crisis’.

How have permit delays impacted your work?

We are a small design and construction company (we’re not a developer) and we craft both full size homes and lane house at a rate of up to 10 homes a year. Our business model really depends on the timely issuance of permits. If you’re a big developer then the permitting process is just lumped in to a multi-year project, but for us it has a really huge impact.

We currently have 9 homes waiting for permits, but fortunately (for the moment) we’ve got enough work to keep our construction crews busy.

This wasn’t the case in Dec. 2014 when we also had 9 projects pending, but all of our active builds were wrapping up.

At that time we had to lay off staff, and we were pushed within inches of bankruptcy simply because of the delay in permitting. (I am still very bitter about this period of time…)

Overall I’d estimate that the permitting process is the single biggest bottleneck in our project delivery process, and we could probably do about 20% higher volume if we could get a permit in 6 weeks. When I look at the billions of dollars in permits being issued each year, I wonder if others are in the same position, and what the cumulative economic impact on the city is.

To my mind, addressing permitting times could result in a larger impact on housing supply than either the effort to crack down on vacant homes or short term rentals (but of course I’m completely biased in that assessment!).

Your comments appear to be mostly about new buildings, but what are your observations about issues getting permits for renovations of existing buildings?

We do new construction mostly, but we’ll sometimes renovate a heritage house or do a “full-gut” renovation/addition to a bungalow. The timing for these is definitely longer than what it was 3 or more years ago. The biggest challenge is when you’re trying to renovate in a zone that has added character guidelines or it requires an amendment to a development permit. These are a huge pain, and I’ve been generally trying to avoid those types of projects because it is too easy to lose money.

As an example, we’ve spent months and months working to get a simple two car garage added to a corner RT site with an existing single family house. On another project we spent weeks going back and forth because a stair in the backyard was deemed “architecturally unresolved”. In RS this would have been fairly simple, but working with RT can border on the absurd.

In general the challenge with renovations is that there are a number of ‘triggers’ that you hit that can make the price and permit requirements of the project jump suddenly. These include the need to upgrade the sewer, to add fire sprinklers, or bring the building up to the current energy code. You may want to do a small renovation, but you end up gutting and re-doing the whole house. If you want to do a small renovation, you need to make sure you don’t trigger one of those upgrades.

More and more we’re shifting toward new construction because there isn’t much of the old house left once you’ve done all of these upgrades (on top of the fact that the land is so expensive that people often choose to invest in new construction vs. renovation given that the renovation isn’t that much cheaper and the new home will have a higher asset value).

In the District of North Vancouver we’re doing a renovation/addition to a heritage-listed home designed by Arthur Erickson. We’ve had to go through design review, and a heritage review, but the process was probably half as long as doing the same thing in the City of Vancouver.

What more could City Hall be doing to solve the problem of slow permit processes?

As I see it there are a few main actions:

  1. Ramping up the staffing and resources to speed up the current system,
  2. Improving the processing methods and system (i.e. who has my permit?!),
  3. Reducing the number of requirements,
  4. Giving staff a mandate to “Git ‘er done”

The staffing ramp-up probably needed to be ~1.5  to 2 time what was done, but it’s hard to know because there will always be a long lag time between council’s decision to ramp up staffing, and actually seeing improvements. The operational improvements are a work-in-progress, so it’s hard to comment. That leaves us with actions 3 and 4.

Those two items are a bit fuzzy, but it comes down to the fact that there is a hierarchy of information that the City is reviewing, and not all of those items are equally important. The City should absolutely be scrutinizing issues related to life safety, and should be managing the details related to energy and carbon emissions, but when I get a landscape reviewer telling me to “provide a layered look by adding a second row of planting” in a planter bed, or someone says a lane house is “too two-storyish”, or I get a request to update a dimension from 19 feet  to 19.01 feet  my head starts to spin.

I think that any time the processing time goes over 2 months then there should be a range of minor requirements that can simply be glossed over — i.e. “Git ‘er done” This would be more about management style and customer service, rather than a shift in policy. If the lack of housing in Vancouver constitutes a crisis, then we can’t spend so much time fretting about little design details.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of permit review, what more could be done?

At a deeper level we – as a city – are really starting to wrestle with a kind of identity crisis related to our ‘single family’ neighbourhoods, and – ultimately – we can’t address permitting times without also looking at the regulations that our planners are spending so much time enforcing.

Our land prices and housing demand are pushing us inexorably toward a form of land use that should probably be much more urban (row houses etc like you might see in Montreal, or Barcelona) but we remain quite attached to the idea of the detached single family home. At the same time we’re realizing that our goals for reducing carbon emissions from buildings are running straight up against policies which push us toward highly articulated (and energy inefficient) detached homes. As a result we keep layering in more and more regulations aimed at trying to shoehorn all of the needs of a city into the physical form of a suburb.

In the past the City has really micro-managed design at the lot-by-lot level through the extensive use of design guidelines. We’ve been pretty good at treating our neighbourhoods like curated set pieces, and many view that approach as having been successful, but it comes at a cost in terms of the staff hours involved to review a single house, and it leaves us with a kind of pleasant monotony – what I like to call Prozac urbanism – where the lows are rounded up, and the highs are rounded down, and everything is slow.

This is a much broader discussion than what we can cover here, but I think that there are both immediate and longer term improvements we can make to our RS and RT zoning bylaws. To address both our permitting crisis – and our broader housing crisis – we need to shift gears and start a shift from carefully cultivated suburbanism, to a more urban approach that embraces a more diverse, messy, adventurous – and faster – approach to city building.

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How to reach the author.

Bryn Davidson
B.Eng. M.Arch. LEED-AP
bryn@lanefab.com
Twitter: @lanefab

Lanefab Design / Build
Custom homes (and laneway Houses) 362 E.10th Ave. Vancouver

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