Changing Lanes - On The Possibility For Laneway Housing In Toronto

Recently, the City of Toronto hosted it’s first public consultation on laneway development since 2006. Curated in response to a request made in May of this year by Councillors Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 23) and Ana Bailão (Ward 18), the consultation discussed a study prepared by Lanescape and Evergreen Cityworks detailing the current planning process, precedents from other jurisdictions, and proposed performance guidelines for laneway housing. This article explores the results of Landscape's survey, as well as their implementation strategy.

 

2 Miles Lane by Architect Terence Van Elslander built in 2007.

 

While laneway housing is not entirely prohibited within the city (it’s permitted under “special circumstances” pending the approval of an application for zoning amendment) and there’s some housing on several of Toronto’s 2433 laneways (which are legally recognized as streets) including Croft Street, Skey Lane, and Jersey Avenue, it’s hardly an option most property owners would see as viable under current regulations. In a city with a growing population, ever-increasing housing costs, and an overwhelming number of condos popping up, it certainly seems time that this discussion be revisited, particularly with the success of the model in other cities such as Vancouver where laneway homes now make up around 20% of rental stock.

 

An outdoor space at Superkul's 40R Laneway house. Photo by Tom Arban/Lorne Bridgman.

 

When essentially dismissed in 2006, issues cited included lack of infrastructure for services (water, electrical, waste removal, etc.), overlook/privacy concerns for existing properties, as well as the existence of policies stipulating that development in Toronto’s neighbourhood’s must respect and correspond to what already exists there (making it difficult to insert a new typology).

On the other hand, the development of Laneway Homes is supported by Provincial policy requiring permissive regulation of detached secondary suites, and seems entirely in line with mandates of the City’s Official Plan stating “Current and future residents must be able to access and maintain adequate, affordable and appropriate housing. The City’s quality of life, economic competitiveness, social cohesion, as well as its balance and diversity depend on it.(Section 3.2.1)”

The primary differentiator between the conversation this time around and last, is the decision to do away with contemplating severance and sale and instead think of the new structures as entirely subsidiary to the street facing homes (speakers all diligently referred to the homes that might be permitted as Laneway Suites not houses) . But perhaps an equally important factor in determining whether this round of review can successfully result in regulatory change, will be the shift in perceptions around how to best support the stability of neighbourhoods.

 

 

An illustration from Lanescape's report indicating that laneway suites would remain tied to the primary lot.

 

 

Well considered as the initial study may be, City planning has flagged many concerns yet to be resolved, and more were raised by residents in attendance. As the width of many laneways prohibits access by garbage trucks, it’s suggested that access to the street from the laneway unit, with doors to both sides be provided so garbage can be taken to the street for collection, and to facilitate access in case of emergency. It’s a good solution in theory, but when the width of lots and the prevalence of non-detached principal residences on streets featuring laneways to the rear is considered, could rule out a large portion of potential laneway development.

Parking proposes a similarly complex problem: whether or not the provision of new parking space for additional tenants is required, if space that once accommodated vehicles is used for residential purposes, where would cars go on streets with limited parking. Alternatively, if parking at ground level of laneway suites were required, could an adequate amount of living space really be provided without exceeding the suggested 2 storey height (a performance standard suggested in order to reduce shading and overlook)

 

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Kohn Schnier Architect's Croft Street Laneway House

 

 

In some municipalities, Saskatoon for instance, garden suites are seen as a means to provide options for aging in place. This, and accessibility were other considerations that came up in the discussion, along with the potential to mandate at grade entrances and first floor bathrooms - great things but certainly not possible if parking were to be required and very difficult to achieve with any requirement for side setback.

 

Another view of Superkul's 40R project

 

 

Finding solutions that balance all concerns will be no small task, and even regulatory frameworks are able to account for varied needs, the process of construction itself on these difficult to access pieces of land poses more challenges. So it’s understandable that many people question claims that laneway housing might be a solution for issues of affordability. In fact, for laneway houses constructed in Toronto in the past where lot severance was possible, the homes have sold at higher values than the same square footage within their neighbourhoods (though this was likely in no small part due to the cache of laneway living’s novelty in a city where it’s essentially banned). Unfortunately, the upfront costs of laneway construction could very well be prohibitive for those that could benefit most from rental income to offset their own housing costs. So perhaps it’s not affordability but adaptability that the discussion needs to centre around.

Laneway homes are by no means a simple solution, but the opportunity they offer for gradual and diverse intensification of neighbourhoods mean they’re an option that at the very least is worth taking the time to understand more fully. Perhaps if a further step back is taken, and we begin to reconsider not only what we build but how we build (could modular and prefabricated solutions be implemented without creating the same cookie-cutter feel that laneway housing seeks to avoid?) as well as how we finance what we build (might developers be able to invest in the infrastructure necessary to produce prefabricated solutions instead of purchasing land itself and allow property  owners to pay for these structures over time at a cost low enough to allow at least a small rental income?), while no less complex, the solution may begin to feel more viable.

 

Resources to better understand the current discussion around laneway housing in Toronto are available through

Evergreen

Lanescape

+ City of Toronto

 

You can also check out some great examples of laneway homes in Toronto featured on Houseporn:

The Croft Avenue Home by Kohn Schnier Architects Pictured Above

Jones Avenue House by Craig Race and Sustainable.TO

Studio Junction's Courtyard House

 

Or give my previous posts on Lanescape and strategies to increase housing affordability a read.

 

 

This article was researched and written by Miranda Corcoran, a designer and creative strategist based in Toronto, who began writing for Houseporn while studying Industrial Design at OCAD University.

Posted In: Ontario

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