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Digitized development approvals process is critical to building more homes

by Richard Lyall on 04 Feb 2022

If there’s one thing that residential builders hate, it is the red tape they must wade through to get shovels in the ground. It often takes years to get a new development or condo tower into construction.

That’s why the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) was pleased to see more than $45 million announced by the province recently for a new Streamline Development Approval Fund to help Ontario’s 39 largest municipalities digitize their services and make it easier for applicants to navigate the development approvals process, manage their applications and get status updates.

Another $8 million is also being set aside through the Audit and Accountability Fund to help municipalities identify potential savings and efficiencies through third-party reviews to further accelerate the creation of new housing and modernize municipal services.

As an additional measure to help build more homes faster, the province also committed to work with the municipal sector to develop a data standard for planning and development applications to help accelerate approval timelines.

These initiatives will help modernize municipal services and further accelerate the production of housing.

The province has previously taken steps to improve the situation via the More Homes, More Choice action plan as well as through the creation of a Housing Affordability Task Force, but more action is necessary.

There is serious market disequilibrium just now. We need to modernize, streamline and digitize the development approvals process, zoning, site plan approvals, and more across Ontario municipalities. 

The population of our province is growing. Immigration is increasing with more than 400,000 newcomers coming to our country each year. Yet, Canada’s population-adjusted housing stock is the lowest of any G7 country.

A report by Scotiabank suggests another 650,000 homes would have to be built to get Ontario to the same level of homes per capita as the average in other provinces. An additional 1.2 million homes would have to be built for the province to catch up to our international peers. 

Exorbitantly high housing prices, meanwhile, are affecting the talent pool in Canada. Banks are having trouble finding skilled talent. Royal Bank of Canada chief executive officer Dave McKay indicated in an interview with The Toronto Star that the country’s high housing costs are threatening to scare away skilled workers.

RESCON has been urging the province to provide funding for One Ontario, an initiative that would set the stage for a comprehensive e-permitting system to replace the current patchwork of varying systems in municipalities. The initiative was launched by AECO Innovation Lab, a consortium that is driving digital transformation across the architecture, engineering and construction sectors. 

The venture would develop guidelines for harmonized data and information exchange standards that would set the stage for a fully digitized and harmonized e-permitting framework that could be adopted by all municipalities in Ontario and speed up the fragmented development approvals process. 

Such an initiative would eliminate redundant digital customizations in every municipality and lead to speedier approvals of developments. Such a system would also improve regulatory compliance, reduce delays and increase government tax revenues as a result of projects being moved along quicker.

We are in desperate need of new housing, so this initiative is a good fit. The number of development applications continue to increase to meet housing demands yet limited resources at the municipal approvals level act as bottlenecks which prevent developers from building housing. This initiative would enable a digital system to be developed that would enable homes to be built faster.

There are economic benefits to speeding up the development approvals process. A 2020 report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis that was commissioned by RESCON indicated that regions in Ontario could see thousands of additional housing units and billions of dollars in investment if a centralized development planning and e-permitting system was adopted by municipalities.

There has been digitization of the approvals process by Ontario municipalities, but the existing programs are siloed, fragmented, and often only focus on a single department within a municipality, and often don’t include other departments, agencies or stakeholders involved in the process. A streamlined data exchange standard is needed so that information can be shared between all parties in the approvals process.

The One Ontario initiative has developed a proposal for a common development approval data and information exchange standard for use by all municipalities and stakeholders.

The slow and often unpredictable development approval processes is a main reason why we are facing a housing crisis. The only way to successfully improve the approval process is to digitize the system.

We are hopeful that the project will be approved through the newly established funding initiatives.

Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at [email protected] 



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