Can laneway homes take the pressure off Toronto’s real estate market?
As aspiring first-time homebuyers lose hope in this insanely competitive market, architects and planners are looking at laneways as a possible solution to the rental housing shortage. NOW surveys the history of the strategy, the challenges facing builders eyeing a new source of land – and one fabulous laneway house that shows what's possible.
By Richard Trapunski
Mar 22, 2017
Photography by Tanja-Tiziana
If Toronto is going to solve its affordable housing crisis, we’re going to have to get creative.
As new condo developments soar all over the city and owners cram basement apartments into their houses, a new movement uniting community members, developers, architects and city councillors is unlocking one answer that’s been right under our noses – or rather, behind our houses.
Toronto has approximately 2,400 laneways stretching about 300 kilometres through downtown corridors between city streets. Laneway houses – small dwellings built above lane-facing garages, houses behind houses – have been floated as an inventive opportunity for over a decade. But a report commissioned by then city councillor Adam Giambrone all but killed the impetus for widespread laneway construction in 2006 by drowning such efforts in red tape.
As it stands right now, building a laneway house in Toronto involves a complicated process of getting a one-off approval doled out on a case-by-case basis. Only the lucky few with the time and money to navigate the system (architects or those able to hire them) can afford to own one of these sleek and desirable little buildings.
That’s going to change soon. Ontario Housing Minister Chris Ballard sent a memo last fall to every municipality in Ontario demanding implementation of secondary suites across the province, and efforts have redoubled in Toronto to make that happen in laneways.
Advocacy group Lanescape has teamed up with sustainable city-building non-profit Evergreen and Councillors Ana Bailão and Mary-Margaret McMahon to draft a set of performance standards that would amend our bylaws to allow a new ease in developing laneway houses.
If all goes well, thousands of rental units could be added, largely in desirable downtown neighbourhoods where there’s otherwise very little space for low-rise development.
“Now that it’s possible, we need to figure out exactly how we do it, not if we do it” says Lanescape’s Craig Race. “It must happen and it will happen, so we need to make sure it gets done right.”
The group looked to Vancouver, which, facing a similar affordability and density crisis, changed its bylaws in 2009 to allow laneway suites. Now as trendy as pot dispensaries, several hundred have been built and the city publishes official how-to guides for building them. Similar developments are happening in Ottawa and Regina.
The key in Toronto, like Vancouver, is a change in definition. Where elsewhere a laneway “house” is its own severable (and often quite ostentatious) infill property, a Toronto laneway “suite” is a detached secondary unit that gets all its services from the main house.
Changing the conversation from “houses” to “suites” removes many of the logistical and technical problems of running new services like garbage and mail to a new property in the laneway by attaching them to an already existing one. Think of it as a basement apartment, but instead of getting tucked into an often dark and claustrophobic underground setting, it’s above a garage on a laneway.
“If you call the ambulance or the pizza delivery,” explains Race, “they go to the address on the main street and just walk through the side yard to get to your place in the laneway.”
Ward 18 councillor Ana Bailão says we need to have a discussion about “gentle intensification,” especially when property values are going up 27 per cent aannually and rent increases by 30 per cent.
“It’s devastating for families trying to rent or get into the market, for people who want to live in the city,” she says. “Salaries are not going up at this rate.
“It’s so unaffordable that people are looking at different ways of being able to continue to live in their communities,” she adds, noting that high-rise condos are not an attractive option for everyone trying to get into the market.
“People are talking about that missing middle. Is this something that could help us to tackle a little bit of that issue?”
The key phrase here is “little bit.” While people in Toronto have a tendency to go from 0 to 100 real quick, laneway suites aren’t going to single-handedly solve the housing crisis. At most they’ll add thousands of rental units. That’s pretty major for property owners looking for an extra revenue source to pay their mortgage, and for renters who don’t want to be pushed out of the downtown core.
But compared to the hundreds of thousands of buildings that could be built by implementing a new set of mid-rise guidelines, it’s relatively small potatoes.
That’s why the city has recruited Lanescape and Evergreen to help. And they’ve done so by engaging the community. In a series of public consultations, they’ve helped citizens of Toronto envision what laneway housing might look like in the near future, using workshops (co-facilitated by Crazy Dames), walking tours, discussions, games and art. They’ve even literally shaped houses out of clay.
It’s easy to feel powerless in a housing market that’s nearly impossible to break into, so letting people have a say is an easy way to make them feel like they’re helping determine their own fate.
“All the enthusiasm and interest from the public on this has shown that Torontonians want to be thinking about their housing,” says Evergreen’s Jo Flatt. “Residents want to be having these conversations.”
Indeed, in a city notorious for its NIMBYism, everyone interviewed for this story has been surprised by people’s enthusiasm. That might be because so far everything is still theoretical: what’s being built are the guidelines, not the suites. Once a house is under construction, people might have questions about whether it fits the character of their neighbourhood, impinges on its neighbours’ privacy reduces parking spaces or blocks access to services. And if laneway suites take off, will they further inflate property values? What will they mean for gentrification in neighbourhoods with laneways?
Those questions are informing the development of guidelines, but the real test will be in the implementation.
That’s why, for the next couple of years, watchful eyes will be on the University of Toronto. This month, the university announced plans for a pilot project to build a pair of small laneway houses (800 and 950 square feet) across the street from Robarts Library. Christine Burke, director of campus and facilities planning, says it’s a test for the institution, which sees the potential for 40 to 50 new laneway houses on its property.
The campus stands as a unique case in many ways. Burke forecasts a need for 2,300 beds by 2020 on the St. George campus for faculty, graduate student and student family housing, and these are being tested to meet that specific demand. But the process has been very similar to that in the rest of the city. It’s been a group effort involving the Huron-Sussex Residents Organization, urban planning and design consultants and the ward councillor, envisioning the project as “a case study looking at livability, sustainability, replicability, affordability and also ‘Is it well integrated into the neighbourhood?'”
“What’s really great about the U of T pilot happening in tandem with this is, if we can use some of the performance standards that we’re developing with city staff in the U of T site, people can see what the vision is,” enthuses Evergreen’s Flatt, who’s working on both projects. “People can totally understand it.”
The enthusiasm isn’t coming just from the public, but also from architects who see laneway housing as a distinct opportunity for a new Toronto style.
“I think [it’s] going to be a kind of revolution for housing in Toronto,” says Lia Maston of Lia Maston Architect/FIRMA, one of the pioneering offices setting up as a design build for laneway houses. “Building in laneways involves its own set of conditions. They’re a little bit surgical. It’s a challenge to build something that’s really compact, that includes everything you’d need to be comfortable.”
Proudly showing off a 3D-printed prototype, Maston enthuses over how laneway houses “look into the future.” They’re boxy, symmetrical, minimalist, very open, and they often integrate rooftop gardens and patios. That’s mostly out of necessity, but it feels very contemporary.
They also have to be sturdy (in case they get knocked by a car) and sustainable (in respect to city planning). The future of energy, she predicts, will be solar and integrated, which means houses will be connected to each other and live on their own sort of grid.
Maston says design will always be case-by-case, because each lot has its own characteristics, but there is the possibility for modular, not-quite-prefab structures that can be assembled quickly so as not to disturb the neighbours. (Maston’s firm will be presenting Lane Homes: Think Outside The Tower – an argument for gentle density in Toronto – at Doors Open in May at their 60 Beverley office.)
Michelle Senayah of the Laneway Project says, “Until now, laneways have been a blank spot in the planning policy.” The Project is a parallel initiative that aims to “rethink what those spaces could be.” LP turns laneways into community spaces with public art interventions, laneway greening and even a series of laneway crawls with live music. In community consultations, people were interested in more than just laneway housing, but also laneway offices, studios, cafes, parkettes and daycares. If we unlock laneway housing, people might wake up to the potential of these largely unused and ignored spaces and use them as community hubs. Back lanes will be made safer and more walkable with increased lighting. Neighbours might actually welcome them into their backyard.
Bailão says she’ll have the reports in hand by late spring or early summer to present to East York Community Council. It’s yet to be seen whether other city staff will be as excited as she is, and implementation will involve departments from fire and water to waste management. It’s moving at the speed of city council – which is to say not very fast.
Until then, you can make your voice heard by contacting your councillor or filling out Lanescape’s survey.
You might assume that a laneway living space would feel tiny and dark, but one visit to 54 Croft and I got over that – fast.
The first thing you notice is all the outside light captured by the large mirror running the length of the front hall, which draws your eye straight through to the back of the house, where the seductive flame in a fireplace beckons you into the modest backyard. It doesn’t feel airy – you’re conscious of how carefully these rooms and spaces have been carved out – but it does feel playful and bright.
There are no fewer than three bedrooms tucked into the main floor of this upside down home, which used to be a tiny cottage – technically making this project, designed by Kohn Shnier Architects, a renovation rather than a new-build laneway home.
But this small footprint includes four: a master, two kids’ rooms for short stays during the week and one larger bedroom with an ensuite bathroom for an older guest. The latter is tucked into the basement, inside the old cottage foundation that foundation is disguised by bench seating around the perimeter of the main-floor room above it.
This house was all about “a game of inches,” architect Martin Kohn repeatedly says as we tour the space. But those careful calculations yield inventive results: the bookcases in the kids’ bedrooms double as ladders to bunks, and the neighbours’ sight lines have been so carefully measured that a soaker tub, shower and day bed in the tiny backyard can all be enjoyed in complete privacy as the birds chirp above.
Climb the stairs to the second floor and the space opens up into one large living-dining-kitchen space with a little patio on the side for barbecuing. Up here, among but above the surrounding garages, you feel part of the city once more, with the CN Tower and Aura buildings in full view. Now, this is airy.
The cherry on top? Another shower en plein air, this time on the rooftop patio hidden within a wooden spiral wall. Presumably, after a cold shower in the summer, you flop onto a lounge chair or the day bed surrounded by gardens in full bloom to soak up the sun.
Don’t miss: Inside the laneway garage studios of three Toronto artists
Richard has covered Toronto’s music scene for over a decade. He was once called a “mush-brained millennial blogger” by a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and “actually a pretty good guy” by a Juno-nominated director.