Four Steps to Rental Affordability: Part 3 (Prioritizing It) (City Conversations We Should ALL be Having, by Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles.

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Four Steps to Rental Affordability: Part 3 (Prioritizing It)
(City Conversations We Should ALL be Having)

By Brian Palmquist (first published on 9-Jan-2022)

In this Part 3 of the “Four Steps to Rental Affordability” series of City Conversations We Should ALL he Having, we will look at one of many ways to prioritize affordable rental development. Part 1 talked about the definitions of affordable housing; Part 2 looked at the approach a large municipality adjacent to Vancouver is taking to require rental affordability. 

Priority means…they’re swimming faster?

After a beer break, we continued our conversation.

“There are apparently rules in Vancouver around expediting planning and building permission for affordable housing.” I paused so my son could mentally shift. “But those rules are so complex that nobody, not staff, not city management, not politicians and certainly not applicants and their designers, has any idea how the queue of projects awaiting consideration is determined, or managed. Or if they do know, they’re not saying.”

He appeared to be listening politely, so I continued. “It’s been this way in Vancouver and many other larger municipalities for decades, and it’s only got more complex over time. When I started my career, the volume of all projects in Vancouver was substantially smaller and the processes were pretty much first-come-first-served. Also, the actual queue length and time to get permits was much much shorter than today, although still too long.” He smiled at the knowledge of my universal impatience.

“Together with the first flood of co-ops in the 60s and 70s, there was a rush of strata projects, which had first been enabled by the 1966 Strata Titles Act. Many of the stratas were themselves quite affordable, so there was little need to mess with a queue largely consisting of affordable co-ops, strata and rental.”

“I know it’s your project, you were Managing Architect, weren’t you (he said my former title with air quotes), but didn’t False Creek North (FCN) set a new review standard and get priority treatment?” I smiled that my son was not letting me off easy.

“The only precedent that FCN set was that the applicant paid the city to hire dedicated staff, BUT they worked for the city, not the applicant. In fact, city management took great pains to separate the applicant from those city staffers. Even if we had been so inclined, none of us ever even tried to call them up to try to push things along—we knew that would have backfired, and badly.”

“But mentioning FCN is a good segue to a significant prioritization process that started with Expo 86, the precursor to FCN. It’s called the Certified Professional (CP) Program, and it persists to this day. I think it’s one model for how we can prioritize rental housing approvals.”

He waited patiently for me to continue. “In the run-up to Expo 86, Vancouver’s Chief Building Inspector, Roger Hébert, had dealt with a round of the periodic budget cutbacks that came with responsible management of the city’s budget—yes, I know, responsible fiscal management seems a foreign concept to this civic government.” I was responding to his quizzical looks, continued. 

“Roger reported to the City Council of the day that he did not have enough staff to manage the projected volume of 60 or more Expo pavilions plus food and entertainment venues, etc. Some countries were going to be late arrivals, requiring extremely expedited permitting and construction. He had consulted with the architectural and engineering professions, and together they proposed the CP program, wherein architects or engineers would be qualified by additional training to perform the detailed plan checking and inspections usually done by city staff. The CP Program was approved, became mandatory for Expo 86.” 

“After that, and the era of rapid development ushered in by FCN, the CP program persisted, in fact flourished because, even though applicants paid all of the CP fees, the program provided applicants with quicker, more assured services at the front end, permitting, and at the back end, completion and occupancy, than had been possible using the traditional approaches. And there was a modest fee rebate to applicants because CPs were doing some work previously considered the preserve of city staff.”

“But let’s come back in a bit to the CP program and how it might assist rental housing creation.”

“A bit more history,” I added, continuing over his scowl. “As city, provincial and federal affordable housing programs withered starting about the 80s, and  money for affordable housing got tighter, city staff began to move so-called affordable housing up the queue, both because government money usually came with ‘use before’ dates and because nobody wanted to waste scarce money on interest payments.” He nodded understanding so I pressed on.

“There were some efforts to expedite affordable housing proposals by earlier reviews at all levels, during both design and construction. But as private sector, BCHMC and other nonprofit-sponsored spot rezonings began to tout their individual brands of affordability, things got very confused and remain so. Now almost everybody claims to need expedited permitting because their project is ‘affordable’—easy to maintain when there are so many competing definitions, programs and projects.”

“But,” he interjected, “you told me yesterday Vancouver approval times are worse rather than better—what’s up with that?” He was referring to a city staff report I’d found the previous day, grumbled about during dinner.

“The simple answer: unwieldy processes and duplicated efforts together with no agreement what’s priority and what’s not. In fact (here I showed him the chart above), the city has excused itself from lagging permit issuance (the green bars) for the simplest projects, that is, single family homes, duplexes and laneway homes, because the volume of applications increased dramatically during the pandemic’s recent months (the blue bars). The problem is, this was buried in a report touting how increased budgets for staffing and training had somehow made things better. In fact, the volume of permits issued, which is all applicants care about, has declined since the third quarter of 2020—more money and training for lesser results.”

“So, how do we fix this?” he asked the obvious question.

“Here’s an area where Vancouver has an advantage—its Charter marks it as different from all other municipalities in BC and gives it greater freedom in how it does what it does.” He waited patiently.

“At the risk of considering history, shortly after the FCN Official Development Plan (ODP) process was started—that’s how a larger piece of land has its development density and form of development formalized—senior city management began to worry that they had insufficient staff and organization to manage the municipal processes efficiently. They commissioned private consultants to document the city’s planning process—they wanted a critical path, which describes every step in every process and determines which sequence of processes drives the entire schedule.” He looked puzzled, so I explained: 

“In almost any project, many processes are occurring at the same time but there’s also a general sequence—say, concrete foundations, then framers, roofing and cladding subcontractors.” He nodded, having worked in that environment one past summer. “The sequence of all the connected trades is the critical path, meaning that every day on that path where Trade #1 is delayed results in a possible delay to Trade #2 and those following.”

“So how does this common sense play out at city hall?” He asked a reasonable question.

“For FCN, the scheduling consultants discovered several areas where staff insisted on major involvement, but were seldom available to work on the project. So the entire development would be delayed—in the case of FCN, the consultants calculated the ODP process would take four years!”

“How long did it actually take?” was his reasonable question.

“Eighteen months, because senior city management addressed all of the bottlenecks, eliminating most of them. By the way, it now usually takes more than 18 months to get permits for a single building that is completely compliant with the zoning and building bylaws—no rezoning required.”

He weighed in: “So how do we get review times down—or do we care?”

“We care because even in this low interest rate environment, time is money and time is risk—the longer it takes to get approval to proceed with a project, the more interest charges accrue and the more likely it is that project funds will divert to another, quicker venture. Also, thinking about your situation, if you were evicted for redevelopment of your building, but promised a home in the replacement, what would the cost be to you of an extra six month or year delay in getting back?”

“As to how we get review times down, a simple CP-like solution is staring us in the face.”

“But Dad,” he replied, “you told me the CP program is about expediting building permission—that has nothing to do with the 18-months-versus-4-years period for planning permission.”

“Correct,” I replied, “but from the  design and construction side, the applicant side, it’s mostly the same folks involved—not so from the city side. Planning permission comes first—that’s where the designers seek approval for their design, related to zoning and land—what the planning department, currently called ‘Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability,’ is responsible for. They handle rezonings and development permits, which is what all those blue signs are that pop up when a property’s about to be redeveloped—the city’s process is so slow, the signs often fall apart before the process is completed.”

Building permission comes after planning permission, is all about ensuring that the details of a design are safe to build—that the design complies with the Vancouver Building Bylaw (VBBL), Vancouver’s building code, which is different from the BC Building Code—don’t get me started on why the VBBL is different,” I added, noticing my son’s exasperated look. “The VBBL and all else building is managed by the building department, currently called ‘Development, Building, and Licensing’—two different departments, different management, different staff.”

 “In smaller projects such as a laneway home or a secondary suite, planning and building permission are sought together from the same set of documents, but pretty much anything larger than a triplex currently needs separate planning and building permissions from separate sets of city staff.”

“How crazy is it that a qualified architect has all of their building area, setback, height, in fact all of their design and construction judgments—there are many—checked by two different sets of mostly nonprofessionals who have never seen the project before it lands on their desks? And as for the engineers, again, the work of professionals is usually being reviewed by nonprofessionals unfamiliar with the project.” He nodded hesitantly.

“But professionals also make mistakes,” he responded, remembering my stories of sometimes finding errors during my CP review of other designers’ work (I had never told him about the handful of times in my chequered career when it was I who made the mistake).

“Yes,” I agreed, “but those errors are few and are usually found because acting as a CP, I was, in effect, auditing their work. Auditing is a peer review process—in fact, the engineers in BC have instituted such an approach for structural engineering work—one qualified structural engineer is selected by their association (not by the design engineer or their client) and reviews the work of the design engineer. Such independent audit is an established element of quality management in any field.”

“So what’s the bottom line here?” He smiled as he used one of my favoured phrases.

“If the city agreed, they could rely on design architects and engineers to certify their own work on rental projects of any scale as compliant with planning requirements—depending on the details, there might be an auditing professional assigned to review some proposals. In fact, city staff could take that on, but on a random audit basis rather than every aspect of every project every time. Over time, staff performance could be measured against private sector performance and adjustments made.” I smiled at the prospect.

“So why hasn’t this already been implemented?” He asked the obvious question. “It’s an existing program endorsed by the city and the professions—seems a no-brainer!”

“A simple lack of political and senior city management will,” I answered. “And it will continue until the public demands this ending of inefficient process, at least for affordable rental projects. Review times will be drastically reduced, associated city fees should also be reduced, making the end product even more affordable, completed more quickly so you can move back in. We just have to support it.”

We both smiled, looking for another beer after talking too much!

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

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