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Laneway Suite: Unloved Storage to Treasured Asset

The laneway suite; a term that seems to have been coined by Canadians for want of a better phrase to describe a new kind of hybrid building that can mean so much to so many. Laneway suite describes a building that is secondary in size and stature and detached from a main residence, but on the same lot, generally at the back of a yard and fronting a narrower public access route or laneway.

Laneway suites have worn many different hats over the years. From their humble utilitarian beginnings in the late 1800’s as dairies and blacksmith’s forges, modest shelter for horses and workers to narrow thoroughfares for coal deliveries and then came the advent of the motor car and they were transformed into garages - no one would claim that this grey and often overlooked outbuilding hasn’t enjoyed a rich history.

Until more recently, it appeared that the fate of these sometimes dilapidated garden buildings had been sealed; resigned to their subservient place at the bottom of the yard.

Persistence proved fruitful

City planners had been thwarting attempts to redevelop garden garages and coach houses for decades - three decades to be exact, and after a handful of projects slipped through the net, 2006 looked like it was the end of the road for any hopes of transforming these underutilized assets into much-needed homes as the city voted against any more laneway development whatsoever.

Prior objections to development were mainly centered around ‘Not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) hang-ups with regards to privacy and concerns surrounding the denigration of an exclusive, heritage neighborhood including the assumed effect that would have on property values. Secondary to these unwavering voices was what appeared a simple lack of motivation on behalf of the city, citing such things as access, fire safety and garbage issues.

Fast forward many years following the city’s emphatic ‘no’ and ‘never’ and the future of Toronto’s laneways laid in the hands of a group of community challengers, backed by support from local councillors who were passionate about increasing the stock of affordable urban housing from something that would otherwise lay dormant. Following an extensive process of surveys, community consultations and a pilot program, bylaws were finally amended in 2018, allowing for laneway homes to be built in the Toronto and East-York areas and making way for a swathe of new building applications.

A typical laneway development

What’s with the U-turn?

In a word, necessity. Stock of rental housing in Toronto is at a decade-long low and the hot housing market forced a knock-on effect for renters, pushing prices upwards more than 8% during 2020. With pressure mounting on the government to fix the national rental housing shortage and affordability problem, there is a new-found openness to transforming the 2400 or 300km of city laneways. Walls are quite literally coming down and Toronto city has started to realize the potential of these undervalued assets. Laneway homes won’t solely resolve the problem but they can at least alleviate it with sympathetic, low-rise buildings to serve a number of modern-day purposes.

Map of Toronto's laneways

Solving social needs

There’s a multitude of large houses and condos on offer, albeit pricey, what’s called for in post-COVID society however is something in-between; smaller, multi-purpose, close proximity to family and believe it or not, communities. Laneway houses could easily prove the answer to many of today's social challenges...

  • A place to call home for adult children struggling to get onto the housing ladder;

  • Studio or office space combined with a place to call home for entrepreneurs, micro-businesses and creative professions (live-work spaces);

  • An office for the new generation of ‘work-from-homers’;

  • Independent homes for aging parents with support close by in the main residence as an alternative to long-term care;

  • Rental accommodation for students and temporary workers in Canada;

  • Homes for empty-nesters that also provide childcare to younger generations and;

  • Sustainable, climate neutral properties for the growing number of commuters by cycle or foot.

Every disused garage or old coach house that’s tastefully converted is one more high-rise apartment that doesn’t need to be built somewhere else or one less space taken up in long-term care so the old arguments against conversion fail to stand up any more. Houses are needed somewhere and if they’re low-rise and in-keeping with neighborhoods, it’s far better for the community as a whole than another siloed condo block.

Using a crude calculation of 300km of laneways, with a maximum 26ft wide house on each lot and that’s a staggering 37,855 affordable housing units; to put that into context, over 112, 20-storey apartment buildings with 338 units would be required to achieve the same. This isn’t a mere drop in the ocean and can’t be dismissed as such because it’s crunch time for Canada’s housing and status quos must be challenged.

The evolving laneway suite

As it stands, a secondary suite is just that, ancillary but still connected to a main residence. Prescriptive bylaws still prohibit it from being severed from the main house and the services that supply it; as an affordable rental opportunity or for personal usage by the homeowner, it presents a practical and sometimes lucrative opportunity but as a province and industry, we’re yet to fully comprehend the potential of these historical gems.

As willingness grows to explore previously untapped solutions to the housing problem, the laneway suite is likely to grow and evolve with it, becoming much more than another form of housing and an increasingly flexible development opportunity to create a mixed-use, walkable neighborhood. Public consultations undertaken by Lanescape uncovered some surprising insights and it seems that current inhabitants have a vision for their laneways that embrace both the privacy and social aspects of these quaint streets within an urban setting. From their perspective, these community hubs would revive areas and instil a renewed sense of pride while accommodating somewhere for kids to play, neighborhood get-togethers and small businesses servicing the whole community with child care, gyms, cycle shops and cafes.

These surveys also indicated preference for the city to make laneway housing severable from main residences in the future, maybe by way of easements which would enable right of access and be a progressive step to standalone houses with a dedicated address as opposed to suites. Whatever the future holds, merely allowing and speeding up the process of conversion to rentals achieves a vital uptick in housing density. More often than not this can happen in areas with existing transit connections, without the need for appropriating valuable land.

There’s no doubt there’s more progress to be made before we see action ramping up but the hard work has already been done by laneway housing proponents and there’s now at least some unity on the reasons for maximizing existing housing stock. For now, we just need the innovators to march forward in the face of tradition and execute a vision which will bring these once bustling narrow alleyways of activity back to life - perhaps with a distinctly European vibe.

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