Roughly one in three new Canadians settle in the Golden Horseshoe—the urban area encircling the shore of Lake Ontario between Niagara Falls and Oshawa. At the centre of this population influx, Toronto faces the pressing question of how it can best accommodate growth while preserving its distinct neighbourhoods and urban character.
Enter laneway housing. On Wednesday, 26 February, at an information session hosted by Lanescape and featuring guest speakers from Alair Homes, the case for this modest housing typology as an answer to Toronto’s housing shortage was made. Lanescape believes that laneway housing can help to fill the “missing little” in a city that remains averse to development in its low-rise downtown neighbourhoods.
The presentation was given by Craig Race, Co-Founder and Architect at Lanescape; Tony Cunha, Senior Manager and Architect at Lanescape; Evelynn Ratcliffe, General Manager and Partner at Alair Homes Forest Hill; and Andrew Black, Partner at Alair Homes Forest Hill.
Lanescape played an integral role in the advocacy effort which led to the changes allowing laneway housing to be built as-of-right in Toronto and East York. Their 2017 report, co-authored by Evergreen, informed the more permissive City by-laws which came into effect in summer 2018.
These by-laws specify where a laneway house can be built and how it should relate to an existing house on-site. A major part of the February, 26 information session was dedicated to clarifying these rules for homeowners who might be considering constructing a laneway house on their property.
This is not the first time Toronto has considered the typology. Laneway housing almost became legal in Toronto in 2006. One of the barriers to success then was the issue of emergency service access. The new by-law addresses this by requiring that a laneway house be located within 45 metres of a laneway entrance to allow for emergency access. If this is not possible, a minimum setback of one metre from the primary house to the property line—or, with the agreement of neighbours, to a neighbouring house—satisfies the requirements.
Under current guidelines, Lanescape estimates that more than 30,000 properties qualify for as-of-right laneway house construction. Still, some advocates, including Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, believe that the by-laws remain too restrictive and are recommending that they be relaxed. This would open more mid-block properties to laneway development.
The by-laws have some further specifications. On lots less than six metres wide, 60% of the back yard must be soft landscaping; for a wider lot, that number goes up to 85%. A laneway house can be up to one storey (maximum four metres) with a 5 metre setback from the main house, or two stories (maximum six metres) with a 7.5 metre setback.
Craig and Tony showcased several projects from Lanescape’s portfolio to demonstrate the diverse options available within these seemingly narrow guidelines. The projects ranged in size from a small apartment to a fully featured second house with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms.
Andrew and Evelynn from Alair Homes echoed this emphasis on diverse options, and recommended homeowners make sure they are clear on the intended use of the proposed laneway building well before beginning construction. Beyond the standard configuration of a rental unit above a garage, a laneway “house” might provide semi-separate living space for older children not yet ready to move out, or a way to downsize while renting out the main house. Knowing the end use is important when planning and financing such a major construction project.
Evelynn and Andrew also discussed the complexities of building what can amount to a second house on an existing property. Services have to be provided via the main house, which often requires upgrading them from their existing capacity. Without careful planning, runaway costs can be an issue.
The talk was followed by questions from the audience and a chance to speak one-on-one with the presenters about site-specific concerns. Lanescape offers a free consultation to determine whether a property can accommodate a laneway house, and encouraged attendees to bring their site surveys with them to the information session.
Another information session is being planned for later in March, 2020.
It is not yet clear what kind of effect laneway housing will have on Toronto’s housing market. What is clear is that there is significant interest in a housing typology that is still quite new to the city.
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