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Vancouver city councillor: Prioritize renovation permits for people with disabilities

Apartment owner waits almost three months to get a permit to retrofit bathroom for accessibility purposes
Vancouver city councillor Lisa Dominato wants people living with a disability to get priority at city hall when it comes to turning around permits for retrofits aimed at making a person’s home accessible.

Jordan Marks bought an older apartment last summer in Vancouver.

It's spacious, but he can't get into his bathroom to have a shower or use the sink.

That's because the 30-year-old lawyer, who has a form of muscular dystrophy and requires a wheelchair, needs to retrofit the space to accommodate a roll-in shower and adjust his sink so that he can access that, too.

Marks thought the work would be done sooner than later.

But he and his contractor had to wait almost three months to get a permit from the City of Vancouver to begin the renovations.

"I was quite surprised that the city wasn't willing to understand that this is different than somebody who's just simply remodelling a kitchen, or something like that," said Marks, who's been living at his parents' home in the Tri-Cities while waiting for the renovations to be completed.

"I think that that there's a difference there, but they weren't prepared to accommodate a person with a disability. I was a bit shocked by it."

Marks said the contractor applied for the necessary permits on Sept. 1 and received them on Nov. 17. He expects he will be able to move in next month. In the meantime, he continues to pay a monthly mortgage payment on a vacant apartment.

Frustrated, he contacted Coun. Lisa Dominato who will introduce a motion to council this week that aims to speed up the permit turnaround for people living with a disability who need to renovate an apartment or house for accessibility reasons.

Dominato wants people such as Marks to get priority.

"From my perspective, based on my reading and research, I think there's a duty to accommodate here," Dominato said. "It seems like a gap, and I think we can do better."

Asked how long the turnaround should be for a permit, Dominato said she wants people living with a disability to be able to get permits within weeks, not months.

She noted that getting a permit is only one step in getting the work done, pointing out the shortage of available contractors in the current renovation market.

"Let's make things better for residents, and let's make things easier and faster," she said, adding that her research shows just a little more than five per cent of the city's residents have some physical disability or mobility restriction.

With more of the city's population getting older, with some eventually requiring wheelchairs and upgrades to their homes for accessibility, Dominato said the city has to anticipate such a future demand for renovations.

A representative from the city's communications department said in an email that as of December, "we have a higher than average volume of approximately 290 permits in the renovation centre."

The turnaround time varies and depends on the complexity of a renovation application, the representative said, adding that "a simple bathroom renovation is usually processed through our fastest stream as a 'field review' permit at seven weeks."

Dominato's motion has the support of the city's persons with disabilities advisory committee, which unanimously endorsed last week the councillor's push for a policy change that would prioritize people such as Marks.

"This is a no-brainer for our committee," said Laura Mackenrot, a co-chairperson of the committee.

"There's no controversy here; everyone's a thumbs up. We're all pro for it. We all think it should happen. And each one of us probably knows somebody who potentially wants to renovate but knows that the process is just going to be so time-consuming."

That includes a person on the committee who went through a similar frustrating process several years ago, said Mackenrot, whose personal opinion is that a turnaround for a permit for someone living with a disability should be a few days.

"We're really hoping that this isn't controversial and that most of the city councillors would get on board with something like this pretty easily," she said.

Dominato's motion comes three weeks after Vancouver Is Awesome reported that the city has a backlog of 500 applications from people seeking permits to build single-family homes, duplexes and laneway houses.

The city pointed to an 84 per cent increase in applications last year for the type of housing.