If Doug Ford wants to fix building permits, we should let him

OPINION: From what I can tell, no one has ever had a good experience getting a building permit. Whatever you think of the PCs, this is a problem worth solving
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 18, 2021
Waiting for permits seems to be a common problem for anyone embarking on a project of any size. (bukharova/iStock)

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It feels a little ridiculous right now to be writing about anything other than the growing warning signs that Ontario could be facing another wave of COVID-19. Or, farther afield, the devastating emergency in British Columbia, which will no doubt offer Ontario some learning opportunities and affect the cost of living here until the damage to our supply routes can be repaired.

But there was another issue that popped up earlier this week, and I just can’t resist offering a thought on it. Yes, it’s true that the big crises of the day are always going to demand most of our attention. It has to be that way. But there are a lot of little things we need to fix, and maybe if we fix a bunch of them, some of the bigger problems we’re facing won’t be quite so daunting.

A few days ago, CBC News reported that the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party had begun calling people about the main causes of housing-affordability problems. Although a poll does not guarantee policy will follow, it seems likely that (given we have an election coming up in the summer) the party is trying to gauge what its positions should be. Fair enough. Once the CBC article came out, I saw a flurry of reactions on social media. I try not to overreact to outrage on social media, because that’s not a reliable indicator. But I will simply note that some of the people expressing outrage weren’t just random tweeters but people with meaningful sway and public influence. Much of the outrage seemed linked to their belief that the PCs’ close ties to some real-estate developers mean that the fix is already in.

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I don’t know. Maybe it is. I don’t know as much about that as I should, and I suppose I have some reading to do. But I looked at the polling questions obtained by the CBC, and one of them was asking about difficulties obtaining building permits. Whatever you think about Doug Ford, the Ontario PCs, and their purported links to big real-estate developers, are we really going to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Is that a question we can’t ask? Does anyone think that the process of getting building permits in this province is good? Is anyone looking to die on that particular hill, of all places?

We are all prisoners of our own perspective, and my anecdotes don’t carry the force of fact simply because they are my anecdotes. But I will say that some of the most alienating and embittering experiences I have ever had dealing with government officials have been in the realm of building permits. Most of my experiences with government officials, both as a journalist and as a citizen, have been acceptable. Some have even been good. The bad ones, though, have typically been clustered in the health-care system — where overworked medical staff simply cannot provide timely care while navigating horrific layers of bureaucracy — or when dealing with municipal or provincial building-permit systems. I’ve talked about these experiences with other people, and not once has anyone stepped up and said, “Oh, weird, because I had a great experience getting my building permit.”

Seven years ago, my wife and I decided to move to Toronto from Aurora, in York Region. We had a lovely new home there, but the commute was getting worse and worse every year, and once we had kids, we weren’t willing to sacrifice time as a family to sit in traffic. There were days when I had to leave before my infant daughter was awake and didn’t get home until after she was asleep, because my commutes on both ends of the round-trip were so long. We purchased a house in Toronto that had good bones but needed a lot of work, had the plans drawn up, arranged the funding for the project, got all the contractors in place, and then settled down into what became a months-long process of waiting for rubber stamps.

Readers may be curious about the nature of the renovations. Perhaps you’re suspicious that we had a bad permitting experience because we were proposing something unusually complicated or radical. That’s not the case. It was an extensive renovation that included putting an addition on the house, but with the exception of one piece of roofing joist, there was nothing that was complicated or unusual from an engineering perspective. And we weren’t proposing anything that was not already approved by local zoning regulations. We required no trips to the committee of adjustment, no minor variances from code. We took an old, beaten-up house and turned it into a slightly bigger, modernized, and repaired house. It was about as straightforward a job as a large project could be.

And it ran for months longer than it had to, because the City of Toronto routinely blew through its own standards for timely responses to permit requests. Our contractor, about as cynical a man as one could imagine, told us upfront that, even though we had carefully designed our proposal such that it shouldn’t require any additional steps, we should still expect the city to repeatedly extend its own deadlines simply because it’s overwhelmed and understaffed. “They have to get back to you in two weeks,” he said. “So, every 13 days, they’ll send us a request for more information. That resets their clock.”

And that’s exactly what happened. For months. 

Again, has anyone in this province had a different experience? Waiting for permits seems to be a damn-near universal — if not literally universal — problem for anyone embarking on a project of any size, be it residential, commercial, or industrial.

I don’t blame anyone for being cynical and skeptical about the Ford government. But this is still a big problem that we should fix. If it falls to Ford to point it out, well, good for him.

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