As talks of slow application processing timelines and a need to ramp up development to meet supply demands dominated the Toronto real estate conversation, the City of Toronto Building department quietly made changes to the building permit process to enhance efficiency -- and some builders are taking notice.

After submitting an application on February 7 for an addition and renovation project in Etobicoke, Brendan Charters, Development Manager of Eurodale Developments, says he received a zoning intake status letter from the City in just 77 minutes -- something that previously has taken several days.

"As with all things pandemic related, timing has been increasingly frustrating since March 2020," Charters tells STOREYS. "Prior to that, we would routinely wait between three to five business days for intake. Pandemic timing slid to seven to 10 business days in our industry experience."

The February 7 application isn't the first time Charters has noticed faster processing times either, "but it's spotty and depends on whose desk it lands on, as is common when dealing with our municipal partners within Toronto," he adds.

"We had a complete permit file reviewed in three days, with a deficiency notice sent, which is also super impressive -- often this comes in about a month," Charters said.

Toronto Building began implementing changes to its application triaging process in the fall, which ultimately boiled down to finding a better way to deal with the bane of any office worker's day: e-mails.

"Normally what's happening, as applicants submitted applications, they went into a central inbox and we have application examiners that would pull those applications one by one to process," Kamal Gogna, Acting Chief Building Official, explained. "What we were finding was also happening, because this email address is available to the general public, individuals were using this inbox as a mechanism to respond to other things as well, some could be just general inquiries, some could be communication to other examiners or inspectors, so the email itself was being flooded with non-applications."

Application intake examiners would then be left trying to sift through emails, filtering, forwarding, and finding out who certain messages were intended for. "You can appreciate that all took a considerable amount of their time," Gogna said.

The new time-saving solution is a simple one: having dedicated staff filtering through the inbox so that application examiners can spend their time actually reviewing applications. Gogna says they've been able to clear their backlog and are generally processing applications the same day they're submitted.

Gonga notes that processing times tend to fluctuate depending on the time of year an application is submitted -- spring and summer tend to be the busiest due to construction season. And even though the winter months are a bit slower, there hasn't been a significant drop in building permit applications this year that would account for the increased processing speeds. In January of this year, Toronto Building received 3,231 applications, which isn't a big change from the 3,464 applications received in January 2022.

"That fluctuation is normal," Gogna added. "I would say it's steady in terms of the number of applications coming in."

Charters notes that many of his colleagues in the industry haven't yet had the same experience of speedier processing timelines, but says he is hopeful for what this means in terms of getting projects started (and finished) faster.

Slow processing timelines on the part of the City have been a point of contention for those in the development industry and political leaders alike. In March 2022, the provincial government introduced its More Homes For Everyone Act, proposing punishments for municipalities that were unable to make decisions on development and rezoning applications in significantly shorter timeframes. Although building permit approvals are separate from development applications, which tend to involve a much lengthier, arduous review, they're still a part of the process to get shovels in the ground.

As Charters describes it, the current lengthy system has caused projects to be cancelled, workers to be laid off, and "hair to grey."

"It also has a direct impact on housing affordability," Charters said. "While we do not build affordable housing, we do add to the housing stock, which has a trickle down effect in creating more and newer vacancies, which then impacts the market price. If housing is ensnarled in red tape, it doesn’t get built, and the supply/demand equation falls out of balance."

Ontario currently has a goal of building 1.5M new homes by 2031 to meet the province's housing needs, of which 259,000 would need to be built in Toronto, according to an August 2022 report from Ottawa-based think tank Smart Prosperity Institute. Although Gonga says Toronto Building's changes will certainly help move that goal forward, they weren't initiated as a result of that goal.

Whatever the catalyst may be, Charters is optimistic for the future of Toronto development.

"Efficiency means we remain competitive," Charters said. "Cities shrink and die on the vine all the time, as do private enterprises, so a good look in the mirror to focus on areas of improvement is critical to long term success -- for all of us."