City BuildingHousing

Making Better Use of Toronto’s Laneways

By June 25, 2018 No Comments

By Graham Haines

The following is adapted from a deputation made June 6, 2018 at Toronto City Hall by Graham Haines, Research Manager for Ryerson City Building Institute. Re. TE33.3—Changing Lanes: The City of Toronto’s Review of Laneway Suites – City-Initiated Official Plan Amendment and Zoning Amendment – Final Report. This item is being considered by City Council this week (June 26-28, 2018).

The Ryerson City Building Institute is pleased to see the Changing Lanes Report come back to Toronto and East York Community Council and looks forward to seeing the recommended changes to the Zoning By-law and Official Plan enacted. Laneway suites offer the City of Toronto an important tool for delivering new family-friendly and rental housing—something Toronto desperately needs more of.

As our report ‘Bedrooms in the Sky’ shows, over the past decade Toronto has delivered an abundance of small one-bedroom condos, but few new family-friendly units. Laneway suites are not a silver bullet, but they offer one opportunity to build larger units that are suitable to range of households and families.

Toronto is building fewer 2+ bedroom condos then during the 1990s. From 1990-1999 2+ bedroom units made up two-thirds of supply. Over the past five years they accounted for only 40% of supply.

Image Credit: Ryerson City Building Institute (2017). Bedrooms in the Sky

Laneway units will also help add housing to areas with good access to existing transit, employment opportunities, services and schools. Many of these neighbourhoods are decreasing in population as households age. Gentle density, such as laneway suites, can help revitalize these areas and support local businesses and services in these areas.

Our research into Toronto’s rental supply identified the need to scale up the delivery of units across the GTA. Specifically, our research called for 8,000 purpose built rental units to be completed every year. Laneway suites will not contribute to the supply of purpose-built rental apartments, but they open another avenue to deliver housing through the secondary rental market, something that can help ease our tight vacancy rate (currently 1%).

Given the need for new family-friendly housing and rental supply in Toronto, it is important to move forward with the current staff recommendations. That said, we do believe that there are opportunities to improve policies related to laneway suites in the future: for example, calls for less restrictive angular plane requirements and landscaping requirements could be considered as the program evolves. Potential refinements however should not get in the way of approval today; the best way to learn about any potential improvements will by implementing the program and monitoring its outcomes. This will allow the City to evaluate any successes and challenges that arise, and recommend improvements based on real-world results from the program.

The City of Vancouver adopted Laneway House Guidelines in 2009. Since then over 3,000 permits have been issued for new laneway houses. The City has a set a target for an additional 4,000 new laneway houses by 2028.

Image Credit: City of Vancouver (2016). Laneway Housing How-to-Guide

We are also pleased to see that Toronto and East York Community Council recognizes housing affordability as a concern for the City and we are hopeful that some Torontonians will take advantage of the proposed pilot program. However, we also believe there are more effective ways to address affordability in Toronto’s housing market than via laneway housing. With that in mind, concerns about affordability should not be used to inhibit opportunities to add laneway housing to our neighbourhoods today.

To properly address affordability, there is a need to increase the supply of purpose-built rental units and family friendly units, particularly in established neighbourhoods close to existing transit, employment opportunities, services and schools. As with laneway suites, delivering this supply will require changes to Toronto Official Plan and Zoning By-law to make it easier to deliver the type of housing we need. There is also potential for appropriate and effective demand-side measures to have a meaningful impact on affordability as our research in ‘In High Demand’ shows. On this side of the ledger, opportunities to better capture gains in land value that have been realized across the city, such as a progressive property tax, should be explored.

Finally, laneway housing also offers the opportunity to explore how we can better use and animate the numerous laneways across Toronto. The City Building Institute has partnered with Dr. Shelagh McCartney from Ryerson’s Faculty of Urban Planning and The Laneway Project to research how Toronto’s laneways could be transformed into vibrant public spaces, and what Toronto can learn from other municipalities that have started down this path. By coupling laneway housing with laneway transformations there is a significant opportunity to build new housing alongside public realm improvements across the city.

Ultimately, we are excited to see laneway housing advance in Toronto. It goes without saying that housing is a better and more important use of the limited space in our city than garages are. And while laneway suites are not the silver bullet to housing affordability they can contribute to a more diverse housing stock that can better serve all Toronto residents.