Toronto’s building permit system is confusing even for the people who administer it

Toronto’s building permit system is confusing even for the people who administer it

(Image: marc falardeau)

Anyone who has ever tried to renovate a home has probably come in contact with Toronto’s building-permit system. It’s a complex thing, with applications, fees and inspections intended to make sure that new construction meets legal standards. As difficult as the process can be for builders, a report from the city’s auditor general implies that it’s sometimes confounding even for the people who make it run. The report says that, in 2012, over 98,000 open permits—67 per cent of all open permits on the books—hadn’t been touched by city inspectors for a year or more. Some of these permits date back to 1975.

In other words, some permits have just been sitting there for nearly 40 years, with nobody at the city knowing whether the proposed structures actually got built—or, if they did, whether they complied with the law.

The report notes that Toronto’s building division has a procedure for marking dormant permits as inactive, but that at the time of the audit the procedure was under review and inspectors didn’t know how to apply it. 845 of the dormant applications had unresolved violations, meaning inspectors had noticed something wrong, and then not followed up through official channels.

It’s worth noting that the auditor general nearly always finds something in need of improvement when he investigates one of the city’s business units. His job is to probe weaknesses in the bureaucracy, and by his standards this report wasn’t a particularly damaging one. Its recommendations for changes to the permit system were adopted by city council’s audit committee earlier today.

Regardless, anyone who has ever felt baffled by the system can take some encouragement from (or be utterly terrified by) the fact that even officials sometimes don’t understand how it all works.