Changes needed to rules for secondary suites, renovations and more

If you create a legal suite, you could easily fall victim to a doubling of charges on your tax bill

Regarding CVRD Survey on Affordable Housing

In response to the CVRD survey on housing affordability for employers I have several comments:

The issue of housing affordability needs to be more comprehensively addressed. A number of factors come to mind.

First, it is essential that deterrents to secondary suites be removed from planning and building regulations. The market is so traumatised from the arbitrary imposition of taxes arising from creating legal suites that the vast majority of secondary suites are created under the radar — illegally.

For instance, if you create a legal suite, you could easily fall victim to a doubling of cost charges on your tax bill that will effectively double your total taxes due. In fact, retrofitting a suite is a relatively easy process and in most cases no changes are required to services such as water and sewer. Despite this, taxes may automatically be doubled unless you do not exceed a threshold of cost of the renovation. This threshold is in itself problematic as costs are escalating significantly and are constantly going out of date. It is also questionable that cost should be a criterion for establishing whether service charges should be doubled or not.

To rectify this situation some municipalities are looking into better guidelines that will encourage secondary suites rather than to encourage illegal suites. Due to pressure from North Cowichan as well as from engineers and contractors the Province of B.C. is now looking into the provincial guidance to help facilitate new suite construction. This will include disincentives that are driving construction underground.

Beyond this issue, there are many compounding factors that make construction more expensive. In particular infrastructure can be a major issue. Much new construction, for instance, involves an assessment of the needs for servicing of lots for potable/fire water and sewerage/septic. Without the benefit of fire protection expertise there may be over-specification of water supply systems for fire protection in areas where the fire service, in fact, do not have sufficient personnel to respond to fires. In these situations, more reliance can be placed on automatic sprinklers to offset fire risk in the dwellings. These can typically be fed from potable supplies rather than full scale mains and hydrants. In certain cases on Vancouver Island, we have used water supply tanks rather than water mains in combination with sprinklers to make development cost effective.

The complexity of development and building code requirements is now so pervasive that many overlapping requirements apply, many of which should be re-assessed and re-engineered to eliminate redundant measures.

While the National Building Code of Canada was completely re-vamped around the year 2000, it failed to address renovations. As a result, any renovation that deviates from the literal requirements of the code for new buildings has to require an alternative solution completed typically by a registered professional. As most existing buildings were constructed under previous codes this is fundamentally impractical. Even the simplest projects are now unnecessarily complex and may tie up the approval process for up to nine months. The province is also looking into this and we are trying, as a professionals, to work with them to correct the situation.

While there are good experts available to remedy these problems, the increased intolerance for risk by municipalities is also an issue. In particular, the policy position of many authorities is that they do not want to take decisions that attract risk. This situation has been exacerbated by litigation, admittedly. However, any authority should recognize that they have a duty to supply certain services for which they require payment and that these services inevitably require any service to be delivered effectively and on time. Without these services the system breaks down. Failure to provide key services is more likely to attract liability than actually delivering services effectively.

While there are excellent building and other officials with which we work, if no service is being provided it would be best to rely on the private sector to police its own services and construction. This is not something that I would encourage as it is better to work with some oversight.

It is interesting to note that in Vancouver they created certified professionals to speed up permit approvals, they have mired the system in red tape and made the system and process so prescriptive that it has not only complicated the approval process unnecessarily but makes it more difficult to incorporate creative solutions into the process. If such systems are utilized, they should use a risk-based approach to determine when they need to involve themselves in the process.

As some issues are often complex, we expect that we should be able to work with officials who are sufficiently well-versed in the subject that they can effectively review proposals promptly and be willing to make the essential decision.

While construction of new housing or renovation of buildings for housing is essential to fill the shortage/housing gap the educational challenges have not gone away and the current processes are proving to be insufficient for the task.

In particular renovation of the existing housing stock/existing buildings cannot be ignored and current impediments and red tape are slowing the entire process down.

Not all of this can be laid at the door of authorities. The reliance on individual disciplines such as structural, mechanical and electrical engineers to undertake the design does not work well for renovations and a new breed of generalists is required to solve the problem. This becomes more apparent the more complex regulations become.

John T. Ivison