News / Toronto

Laneway suites could open up new Toronto housing possibilities: report

A report devises a plan to build laneway housing that falls more in-line with city bylaw.

Lanescape and Evergreen released a report supporting the construction of laneway suites, housing units touted as a solution to increasing density and rent in Toronto.

Ralph Kroman / The Laneway Project

Lanescape and Evergreen released a report supporting the construction of laneway suites, housing units touted as a solution to increasing density and rent in Toronto.

When Alex Sharpe decided to transform a garage into a coach house in The Pocket neighbourhood in 2011, all city planners saw was a second home on the same lot.

The former “garage” had all services in place for years, like separate electrical and gas metres, but because it was not routed through Toronto’s planning process, it violated a bylaw, said Sharpe. And when he approached the city to convert it into the one-and-half story, 1,800 square foot residence he lives in today, the city’s reaction was as expected.

“They didn’t support the application,” said Sharpe, co-founder of Lanescape, an urban design and planning organization. “They called it at the time ‘a house behind a house,’ so I was going into the Committee of Adjustment with a fight on my hands.”

The struggle to circumvent a zoning bylaw can squelch most opportunities to construct a laneway home, even for those with the proper savvy. But Sharpe’s experience, along with a new report, could give properties of a similar class a needed boost: “laneway suites,” small rental units wired to principle residences.

The report, which was released last month by Lanescape and Evergreen, a charity working to inject sustainable principles into urban planning, takes aim at roadblocks hindering the development of the laneway units, offering bolstered performance standards to streamline the city approval process.

It passed a Toronto and East York Community council meeting on June 13 and is onto the next phase before final approval. Councillors Ana Bailao and Mary-Margaret McMahon have thrown their support behind it.

“City staff are to take the report that was done by the non-profits and go and do consultation with the public so they can give us some guidelines and criteria for how we can implement laneway housing,” said Councillor Joe Cressy, who was in attendance. “Our laneways are a tremendous untapped resource and they should and need to be activated. The question is what type of activation and on what laneway?”

The report looks to other Canadian municipalities that have implemented laneway housing, like Vancouver and Ottawa. Hamilton is currently considering the concept, too, said Michelle German, senior manager of policy and partnerships at Evergreen.

There are over 300 kilometres of laneways in Toronto, according to the joint report, raising the prospect of unused housing potential.

“Essentially what we’re asking (the city of Toronto) to do is consider laneway suites as another thing,” said German. “We’re not repealing the house behind a house bylaw. Instead, we’re saying laneway suites are something very specific.”

Laneway suites are proposed as dependent on main residences for utilities and city services — likened to basement apartments with a better view. This falls in step with provincial legislation introduced in 2011 underpinning the development of secondary units, including detached ones, which pertain to laneway suites.

“Because there was no permitting process for laneway suites specifically, the only people who were actually able to build one were people who knew the system, had a lot of time, capital, usually architects,” said German.

The organizations are trying to make these types of homes accessible to everyone and, simultaneously, increase Toronto’s scant rental stock.

“Right now we have a very low number of purpose-built rentals, period, and this could add more to the market,” said German. “It could make people’s living situation more affordable, too, because it could offset costs.”

Sharpe rents out the conventional house that faces Jones Ave. to supplement his income, for example.

“We have built a lot of infrastructure in the city and we can accommodate more density,” continued German. “This is one way we can do that, instead of building out and continuing to sprawl, which is not good for the environment.”

But some neighbourhood associations think that development of this kind could impact certain parts of town if the lay of the land isn’t accounted for. Issues like character, narrow laneways, parking and access to main roads are some concerns raised in city-addressed letters sent by the Annex Residents’ Association and the Harbord Village Residents’ Association.

“We’re not against laneway suites,” said Rory “Gus” Sinclair, chair of the HVRA during the committee meeting. “What we want to say is that it may be appropriate in some parts of neighbourhoods but not others. We hope that this will be a city process, whereby this would be examined by everybody. We are not the NIMBY people at all, but we do have cautions about this.”

In a follow-up interview, Sinclair said that the association is particularly concerned about affordability, green space and emergency vehicle access, due to the tightness of certain lanes in the neighbourhood.

All of these issues require a thorough vetting process, he said, conceding that laneway suites could be a “better fit” than other forms of housing above garages.

“Laneway suites have no severances and are smaller in stature, 400 square feet seems to be the benchmark, making them a little more workable than laneway housing which are serviced out to the lane.”

Consultation seems to be king: it helped Sharpe bring his coach house to fruition, after all. He canvassed his neighbours, bringing them up to speed with his plan. It was then checked and approved by the city and — at long last — erected.

“Everyone was supportive and no one showed up to the Committee of Adjustment in opposition to it,” he said. “Thankfully with the plan and application we made we were successful. We got a 2-1 ruling at (the Committee of Adjustment) permitting the variances to what I ultimately live in now. My experience was that, not only was it a great lifestyle, but completely achievable, functional and it worked really well within the context of the inner-city neighbourhood.”

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