As Toronto home prices continue to soar, the impetus to find housing solutions has never been greater. Whether the red-hot market is driven by inflated demand or diminished supply, or some combination of both, the city's inherently limited stock of ground-related housing means that owning a detached or semi-detached home is—and will continue to be—out of reach for most of us. That's already the case in most global cities, and its's an inherent symptom of the city's densification and vertical growth. Yet there's more space left than meets the eye, and the idea adapting some of Toronto's 2,400+ laneways to serve as housing stock has steadily gained in publicity. But what do Torontonians actually think of it?
Already an established practice in Vancouver, laneway housing has entered mainstream political discourse. Following last November's Laneway Summit, and the University of Toronto's recently announced pilot project to build up to 50 laneway homes, the findings of three 2016 public consultations have now been published.
Led by Evergreen Canada, Lanescape, the City of Toronto's Housing Advocate Councillor Ana Bailão, and Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, the consultations—which were co-facilitated by Crazy Dames—yielded mostly favourable responses, as the "majority of participants expressed a positive interest in the idea of laneway suites," according to a report by Evergreen. The report will now guide the development of a Laneway Suites Recommendation Report, which will be presented to the City of Toronto in the Spring, informing the City's new laneway strategy.
Currently regulated as service-only spaces, the process of transforming Toronto's laneway buildings into housing requires navigating a rather byzantine planning framework. This means that the number of actual laneway homes is very small, with the notable Shim-Sutcliffe-designed Leslieville home serving as a rare successful precedent of navigating the City's onerous bureaucracy to build and service a living space. According to Evergreen's report, the majority of respondents felt that the process should be much easier, with many participants calling for a streamlined approvals process, along with potential incentives, such as the rescinding of development charges for laneway projects.
As it stands, uses are mostly limited to parking, garbage storage, and service access, with the majority of the 400 survey respondents noting that laneways are currently underused. While many respondents had at least some positive feelings about existing laneway conditions—which can provide quiet spaces for contemplation, child-friendly play areas, and intimate neighbourhood gathering spaces—the notion that Toronto's laneways could be put to better use was widely held.
Although a diverse range of viewpoints was expressed, the status quo was widely critiqued throughout the three meetings. As it stands, navigating the approvals process for a laneway home typically requires a piecemeal series of variances to add electricity, plumbing, and servicing to the space. It's a maze to navigate, with a "lack of clear information on the planning/development process" cited as an impediment to development. The high costs of the approvals process were also a widespread concern, prompting calls for financial incentives to complement a streamlined planning process.
Parking also proved a locus of attention, with the many attendees arguing that "parking requirements in downtown neighbourhoods are antiquated." For developing new laneway housing, most participants also "felt that parking requirements should not be necessary for building laneway suites." Citing declining rates of urban car ownership, access to transit, and the rise of car-sharing and—eventually—driverless vehicles, the report explains that "parking provisions were almost unanimously seen as unnecessary."
The comments weren't entirely positive, of course. Some residents felt that parking needs to be preserved, and that the city's low-rise neighbourhoods are already dense enough. On the other hand, however, numerous attendees expressed interest in seeing laneways adapted to provide more than housing, with calls to consider community green space and commercial uses also voiced. Two of the three consultations—which, unlike December's City-wide meeting, were held for residents of wards 18 and 32—also culminated in clay-based modelling sessions, the fruits of which evince an almost fantastical enthusiasm for creative uses.
Unfortunately, the severity of Toronto's housing shortage is such that even aggressively widespread proliferation of laneway suites would hardly come as a silver bullet solution to lack of supply. Our problems are bigger than that. Nonetheless, the new homes could provide a valuable infusion of gentle density, while the more general re-integration of laneway spaces into the public realm would bring new greenery and community space to the growing city.
As Councillor Bailão put it, "[w]ith the ongoing housing crisis in Toronto, laneway suites can be an important tool to add gentle density, bring more rental to the market and provide opportunities for multi-generational living to keep families together." To be sure, it's an optimistic vision. And amidst the rhetoric and planning policy of 'stable' low-rise neighbourhoods, which effectively prohibits intensification across 40% of the city, it's heartening to see Torontonians welcome change, and the new neighbours that come with it.
A full copy of the report is available here, along with appendices which include the presentations shown at the meetings. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space on this page, or join the ongoing conversation in our Forum.