Paul Liberatore

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Vancouver’s renovation boom brings bad builder behaviour

 

 

As the city is deluged with permit applications for new houses, laneway houses, garages and renovations, bad behaviour is also on the rise.

Homeowners and builders are increasingly pushing boundaries on what’s allowed in order to speed the process. Because of a massive spike in residential permit applications, the city has seen a 74-per-cent overall monthly increase in stop work orders issued this year compared with last year.

Stop work orders are typically issued to homeowners when work is being done without a permit. As of the end of August, Vancouver had issued an average of 20 stop work orders each month this year.

“We just have a huge number of permits coming up – new homes, commercial, you name it. We have very high construction values and an increase in numbers, so that is part of the problem,” the city’s chief building official, Pat Ryan, said. “That’s putting a lot of pressure on city staff to keep up with everything.”

The spike in permit applications is mostly due to major increases in residential work. And the majority of the stop work orders have been for residential jobs as well, he says.

 

As a result, the city is hiring extra staff to respond to the problem. Chief city planner Brian Jackson said he’s in the process of reviewing the situation.

“The increase [in stop work orders] is due to the frustration out there and the slowness of our approval of permits, so people have gone ahead and started work without them,” he said Thursday. “So we are trying to address that. We are meeting with the city manager today. The current situation is unacceptable to our employees, to our department, to our management and certainly to council.

“When you look at the total number of dwellings approved to date in 2015 compared [with] the total number approved to the end of August, 2014, we are up almost 1,000 residential units. This is in all [housing] categories.”

Currently, the maximum fine for working without a permit is $5,000. In a housing market in which the average house is priced at $2.23-million, that sort of fine is pocket change. Mr. Ryan says the real deterrent is the time delay that follows a stop work order. Basically, if you break the rules the city will spend more time issuing you permits and inspecting your work.

“If someone is doing work without a permit, obviously there is potentially more of a problem,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s going to be a more thorough check, because the trust is gone.”

Mr. Jackson said the increase in stop work orders is exacerbated by new regulations, such as the required deconstruction of old homes that are demolished, or better energy or wheelchair-accessibility requirements. Also, earlier this year there was an intense crackdown on projects that were supposed to have sprinkler systems. The regulations mean it takes more time to get a project through the system.

“[Stop work orders] are rising faster than we’d like,” he said. “That’s why we have to get the permitting system back to functioning the way it was in 2013.

“And that’s why I’m requesting additional permanent staff,” he added.

If the fines were an actual deterrent, there would be fewer attempts at illegal, potentially unsafe work, and the city would save money on the administrative costs associated with having to respond to bad behaviour. As well, there would probably be more trees standing. About half the city’s tree canopy is on private properties, and as a result the city’s once amazing canopy area has shrunk to 18 per cent. Unbelievably, Toronto has a bigger tree canopy than Vancouver.

Mr. Jackson said an increase in fines would be something to consider, perhaps an amount “proportional to the value of the building.” For legal reasons, the city couldn’t raise them sky high, but they could be much higher.

“The amount of the fines may be one of the reasons why it’s not much of a deterrent when dealing with a multimillion-dollar house. A $5,000 fine is a drop in the bucket compared [with] the contractor being able to deliver a house on time to a client.”

 

It appears the high cost of Vancouver housing is directly linked to contractors pushing through with illegal work to meet their budgets. Other municipalities such as Burnaby, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Langley and Richmond have not experienced a similar increase in stop work orders this year. But the pace of development in those communities has not increased significantly this year over last. Burnaby’s chief building inspector, Patrick Shek, said the city issues about 350 to 400 permits for new homes and renovations a year. Only Delta’s planning chief, Jeff Day, mentioned an increase of about 5 per cent to 10 per cent in building and renovation permits.

“South Delta and North Delta are definitely busier than last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, some Vancouver residents are turning to vigilante tactics in an attempt to curtail illegal work. In June, one Dunbar resident got between a tree cutter and his chainsaw. The man had already removed several trees from a neighbour’s yard legally, with a permit. Under the developer’s instruction, he was proceeding to remove three more tall trees that were supposed to be protected. The woman, who didn’t want to be named, phoned the police and the city, and then grabbed the chainsaw away from the man. As other neighbours gathered around, she caused quite a commotion.

“[The developer and tree cutters] were absolutely beside themselves that I had tried to stop the work. They were furious,” she said.

A police officer arrived and ordered the cutter out of the tree, even though the officer couldn’t actually stop the work since it wasn’t a criminal act. It was only when a city staffer showed up that the illegal tree removal work was shut down. The owner faces fines of up to $10,000 per tree, and potential other costs.

The house, at 3854 West 38th Avenue, also had a stop work order put on it when the city discovered unpermitted work being done. It now sits half-finished, the wood framing exposed for months, and its forest of trees mostly cleared. There is what’s left of the three, sad 30-foot-tall trees, with most of their limbs lopped off. The site has gone from a charming house with a garden to a neighbourhood eyesore.

The woman has written to the city to raise the fines, especially considering that the house cost about $2.7-million.

“The $10,000 fine per tree is not a deterrent. It almost encourages you to cut them down,” she said.

Mr. Jackson said he’ll also be reviewing aspects of the tree bylaw and requesting changes in the next month.

Added Mr. Ryan: “You want the work done properly, by experienced tradespeople with appropriate permits. You may try to save a bunch of money, but it could cost you a lot more in the end.”

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