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Moving the needle on laneway suites: A case study

We've seen huge support for laneway suites by the public, officials and media, but that wasn't the case in 2006. What has changed?
Sketch of a laneway house, courtesy of Lanescape. Image: Lanescape
Top image caption: A sketch of a possible laneway house/Lanescape ‐ Image: Lanescape

Published on November 16, 2017

Laneway suites present the opportunity to increase rental supply within established neighbourhoods without changing the look, feel or character of low-rise residential streets. They have the potential to make home ownership more affordable, offer multi-generational living and increase safety by adding bright lighting and more eyes on the street.

A 2006 report by the City of Toronto raised concerns about the complexity of implementation and anticipated demands on City staff and resources. Since then, laneway housing has remained out of sight at city hall and only built on a case-by-case basis. So how did the most recent public push for laneway suites come to be?

Evergreen, Lanescape, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) and Deputy Mayor & Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) have formed the core team driving the issue in Toronto since 2015. Evergreen brought its expertise in facilitation, engagement and knowledge from working on housing issues through the Housing Action Lab. Lanescape provided technical know-how and proposed the model of non-severable suites. Deputy Mayor Bailão and Councillor McMahon advised and championed with critical navigation of city processes and brought profile every step of the way.

A group gathers at the Laneway consultation at Evergreen Brick Works.
Torontonians were asked to sculpt mini laneway houses out of clay at the public consultation at Evergreen Brick Works/Photo: Crazy Dames

Our process had four main components:

  • Public engagement – We hosted three public consultations and released a publicly available survey to capture feedback from Toronto residents. We engaged nearly 4,000 people and prepared a summary report of findings.
  • Consultation with internal city staff and political leadership – We convened the city’s technical experts around one table to understand their concerns and needs. We met with political representatives in Toronto and East York Wards to gauge the viability of laneway suites in their Wards.
  • Release of consultant report – We prepared a final report that provided City of Toronto staff with the case and resources to advance their efforts by demonstrating the opportunity for laneway suites, an examination of other jurisdictions, and technical performance standards to inform future policy.
  • Political response – Councillor McMahon and Deputy Mayor  Bailão passed a motion that required city staff to consult and report back on implementing a laneway suites initiative in the Toronto and East York District in the first quarter of 2018.
A map of Toronto's laneways.
A map of Toronto's laneways show all the possibilities of building gentle density in different areas of the city

After much hard work, we were pleased to see a change of tides within municipal government. People have been trying to address the issue of laneway housing for years, what made this time different?

  1. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Housing pressure across the GTA and particularly in Toronto, has been at all time high over the past two years. The sense of a housing crisis provoked responses from a wide array of media outlets that helped to amplify and make the case for our work.  
  2. Reframe the opportunity. In 2006, the idea of laneway housing was identified as too complicated. To simplify the problem, we needed to reframe laneway houses as modest rental units that remain under the ownership of the main house with no demands for servicing in the laneway. Laneway suites was the magic word.  
  3. Unique collaboration. The team of Councillor McMahon, Deputy Mayor Bailão, Lanescape and Evergreen brought a unique mix of skills and expertise that allowed us to be successful at various stages of the process. The combination of political, technical and engagement expertise helped us navigate situations and opportunities as they arose.
  4. Champions and commitment. The leadership team was extremely passionate and dedicated to the laneway suites opportunity. Driven champions is a critical ingredient to making things happen. 
  5. No surprises. We consistently met and engaged with city planning staff at all levels throughout the entire process. With their involvement and buy-in, we were able to ensure our engagement approach would produce a document that would add value to their decision making process in the future.
  6. Informed by context. Laneway suites are a complex issue, requiring involvement for a large number of city departments. At the outset of our process, we convened numerous staff departments to hear their concerns, ideas, and discuss how this could work in the Toronto context.
  7. Make it fun. We worked in partnership with Crazy Dames to host three public consultations that used a creative approach with walking tours and hands-on clay construction to explore and discuss the issue of laneway suites. While laneway suites may be small, their uptake is a huge demonstration of progressive policymaking and responsiveness within the municipal government.
Examples of laneway houses.
Examples of laneway houses/Lanescape

An extra thank you to the residents of Toronto who were active participants in this process and consistently made their voices heard. City planning is now working to prepare its response and strategy for implementation. We are confident that 2018 will be a big step forward for Toronto. While change may not be easy, it can certainly be worth the effort to create the flourishing cities we want to see across Canada.

Jo Flatt is senior manager, policy & partnerships at Evergreen. She is the manager of our Mid-Sized Cities and Laneway Suites program.