A new digital tool promises to speed up housing construction, but with everything that involves technology, it will take some time to roll out. An industry leader is also taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to moving permitting online.
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon Wednesday (Oct. 10) announced that the province will work with 16 local governments and one First Nation to design a digital permitting tool under a pilot project with testing scheduled to start in March 2024.
“We are excited to start work together with our partners to design and then implement this new digital building permit tool, so we can speed up the delivery of new homes and create the types of housing options people need in B.C.,” Kahlon said
The province said the tool will make it easier and faster for builders to submit building permits online and for local governments to review them. The tool will automatically review the submission to ensure compliance with key parts of the BC Building Code to prevent delays.
When asked about the project’s timelines, a ministry spokesperson said the months between now and March will be needed to build the tool in partnership with communities, industry experts, users and designers.
An emailed response from the ministry said the goal is to start testing the tool in all communities at the same time to make sure it works before rolling it out across B.C. The timeline for that larger roll-out depends on the success of the pilot program.
Burnaby, Campbell River, Coquitlam, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Qualicum Beach, Kamloops, Kelowna, Langley (City), Maple Ridge, Nanaimo, North Vancouver, Saanich, Surrey, Terrace, Victoria, Vancouver and Tsleil-Waututh Nation, formerly known as the Burrard Inlet Indian Band, are participating in the pilot project.
The email said the ministry identified pilot communities based on several factors, including level of digital readiness, geographic representation, size, and level of interest, adding that all communities will be able to offer input on the tool’s features.
Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas called the pilot project an “important initiative” designed to help get more housing built faster and cut costs.
“The City of Kelowna has been working on a similar system over the past year and is eager to share our learnings as well as learn what else can be done by working collaboratively across governments,” Dyas said.
Five of the 17 communities are also on the list of communities targeted for additional housing. The ministry indicated a range of actions and collaboration across all levels of government are necessary to address housing challenges. This tool offers another mechanism for helping communities unlock new housing, faster, including those with housing targets.
The ministry stated the province has put $1.45 million toward developing the tool, adding that participating partners face no additional costs. But they may face additional costs, because the pilot project is also trying to find additional monies are necessary to support sped-up permitting.
Government has also created a new digital advisory council with representatives from 12 leading organizations across the housing development system to advise the project with regular meeting starting in the fall.
“(Urban Development Institute) is pleased to participate on the digital advisory council for this pilot partnership and is committed to working with the government on innovative solutions like this,” Anne McMullin, president and CEO, said.
The pilot project builds on work to digitize the BC Building Code and establish a single-application portal for provincial housing permits and authorizations. The Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship launched that portal last month.
Casey Edge, executive director of Victoria Residential Builders Association, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“While any positive change from the existing slow processes is welcome, we will see if this translates into faster permit timelines,” he said. “For many years, Langford (in Greater Victoria) was very efficient approving building permits, while other (Greater Victoria) municipalities were slow and costly. This was more an issue of different administrative cultures, not digital versus paper.”
Edge is also calling on government to create certainty around interpretations of the building code, because between municipalities and the province over interpretations may hold projects for months, he said.
“Digitizing the code and permit process must include binding code interpretations by the provincial government,” Edge said. If municipalities want to suggest different interpretations, they should lobby for future building code changes, he added. Day-to-day interpretation and enforcement of the building code should come from the housing ministry in the interests of consumer protection, efficiency and housing affordability, Edge said.
“Now is the opportunity to make this happen when the province is digitizing the code and building permits,” he said.