City asks residents to consider laneway housing

Residents got their hands dirty during the city-led community consultation on laneway houses. PHOTO: Lara O'Keefe

A number of East End adults got their hands dirty – literally – at a recent city-led community consultation on laneway houses.  

The nearly 70 attendees were building miniature laneway houses out of clay to spark discussion about what types of laneway houses – if any, at all – folks would like to see in the city.

“We want to learn about the possibility of laneway suites in the city. You can ask hard questions, build weird things out of clay – we’re here to learn together,” said Jo Flatt, Senior Project Manager at Evergreen Cityworks, one of the companies working with the city on the community consultations. “We want to understand your thoughts and your concerns and the opportunities that you see. And then we want to start thinking about the design of the laneway suites if we go forward.”

Toronto is a city of many laneways – 2,433 to be exact – and through a series of city-wide consultations, the city is exploring whether some of those laneways should eventually be lined with small houses.

Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, in participation with ward 18 councillor Ana Bailao, Evergreen Cityworks and Lanescape – two companies that work to improve the design, beautification and landscape of Toronto –  hosted a community consultation on Tuesday, Nov. 22 at S.H. Armstrong Community Centre to discuss the possibility of allowing laneway suites in ward 32.

Laneway housing – small one- or two-storey homes that are detached from a primary residence and face onto a laneway – is not a new concept – Ottawa, Vancouver and Regina have permitted hundreds of laneway houses to be built. But the idea had not been strongly considered by the city of Toronto until recently.

With a shortage of affordable housing for both renters and homebuyers and a decline in overall space in the city, these small-scale housing options have come to the surface as a way to build affordable housing and address density concerns without changing the character of the neighbourhood.

“It’s time we reclaim them and figure out what we want to do with them,” said McMahon at the consultation. “Fire, emergency services, and our police are very keen on activating our laneways. There’s a laneway project group that has been doing all kinds of fun things in laneways with murals and activities. But we need to figure out how and if this can happen in Toronto and that’s why we are reaching out to you.”

In the case of Toronto, there are plenty of laneways for potential housing with the Pembina Institute stating “there are 250 kilometres of laneways in Toronto, which provide many opportunities for new developments that blend into existing neighbourhoods.”

According to a report by the Pembina Institute, because laneway housing is built to fit with pre-existing structures, the codes and requirements are often quite strict.

In Vancouver, for example, the houses are limited to family or rental use only and can only be a maximum of one-and-a-half storeys high, and anywhere between 500 to 900 square feet. Similar restrictions would likely be put in place in Toronto.

By-laws in Toronto would also require that waste collection and emergency vehicles have access to routes that are at least six metres wide.

According to The Laneway Project – an urban design and planning organization that aims to change Toronto’s relationship with its laneways – routes can vary greatly in Toronto.

They would be anywhere from three metres to six metres in width, rendering a number of them unfit for laneway housing.

This means that even with legislation in place to allow for laneway housing, it would not mean everyone could build.

The consultation highlighted a number of benefits to laneway houses that included housing for aging parents and improvements in the laneways that included better lighting and landscaping, as well as the ability to provide housing to people who need or would like to be close to their families.

However, attendees noted a number of concerns including potential issues with snow removal, parking spots that are currently in the back and cannot be moved to the front, and the removal of community events that take place in the laneways.

And while most saw a benefit in providing more affordable housing, there were concerns about whether or not the laneway houses would actually be affordable.

According to the GTA Housing Action Lab, this could be a legitimate concern as “most laneways in Toronto do not have service connections, laneway houses need to be serviced via connections that are located on the main street. This could be costly for developers, who would pass these costs onto the renter or homebuyer.”

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