For Dina Graser, planning out a laneway house was an exciting process.
The Trinity-Bellwoods resident, whose own home overlooks the popular park, imagined building a structure not much bigger than the garages already lining the alleyway alongside her backyard.
With the help of an architect, her family drafted plans for housing that could fit their needs for years to come: At first, a rental unit offering someone else a space to live; later, a potential living space for her growing son; and years down the road, a unit she could move into herself once walking up stairs in a multi-storey house grew too troublesome.
But amid all the potential, Graser wound up getting some bad news — her laneway dream wasn’t getting approved.
“We were told we are too far from the fire hydrant to be allowed to build. And we thought we might be able to get around that, the fire department said one thing, the city said another, then ultimately the answer was no,” she recalled.
“It’s frustrating, because we’re in this period when everyone’s talking about how Toronto has a housing crisis — and this is an innovative way to start to address that.”
While the city has pushed laneway housing as one way to boost housing stock — and there’s optimism that more approvals are coming down the pipe — some proponents of the approach say prospective builders are often confused by murky regulations, leading many to have their building requests denied.
The latest city numbers provided to CBC Toronto show there have been 230 applicants starting the process to build a laneway suite since a bylaw allowing the homes came into effect for Toronto and East York in 2018, followed by the rest of the city last year.
So far, Toronto has issued 52 building permits for the construction of laneway suites and has another 50 building permits under review.
Those numbers could be higher, according to Dean Goodman, a partner with LGA Architectural Partners, who says a number of his clients like Graser have been rejected since the bylaw came into force.
“What we’re all struggling with is, why is it so difficult? And why is it unclear?” he said.
Concerns over ‘restrictive’ regulations
As it stands, the safety regulations are “so restrictive” that a majority of houses wouldn’t qualify for a laneway home, Goodman added.
In Toronto, building code requires a one-metre-wide access path that’s not more than 45 metres in length from the street to the entrance of the laneway house “in order to ensure there is sufficient access for firefighters during an emergency,” explained Will Johnston, chief building official and executive director of Toronto Building for the city, in a statement.
“Regardless of sprinklers or other measures — it is still imperative that a firefighter be able to reach the laneway suite in a timely manner,” he added, acknowledging there have been questions about the stipulations.
But there’s also growing hope the process is getting smoother as the city works out the kinks.
As the Globe and Mail recently reported, one would-be laneway home owner won at a provincial Building Code Commission hearing in December, “allowing him to use automatic sprinklers to address the perceived fire risks flagged by city officials.”
“We can take the outcome they got and have it applied to the policy,” said Craig Race, co-founder at Lanescape, a Toronto-based company which has been designing, building and advocating for laneway housing since 2014.
“Once that’s codified, that’s going to add a lot of the properties.”
Johnston said the city has already worked to develop “alternative solutions” to other roadblocks like the one-metre-wide access path, such as allowing it to be shared with the neighbouring property or going through the laneway instead of the main home — though for now, that’s only allowed if the path of travel is still not more than 45 metres from the street that abuts the lane.
As for the building approvals doled out so far, Johnston said they’re in line with city predictions.
Advocates calling for more flexibility
Race agreed things are on track, despite a slow start. And that, he said, is good news when it comes to the city’s housing crunch.
“There’s no question it needs to continue evolving on things like fire access, coming up with new and better solutions, but I’m optimistic,” said Race.
“I like to remind people a year and a half ago, you couldn’t build a second house on your property, and now you can.”
Now, Graser hopes the regulations loosen as the city realizes some people like her, who are ready and willing to contribute new housing stock, are hitting dead ends.
“If you don’t actually provide some flexibility and let it be built, it’s going to sit as an idea on a shelf and nobody’s going to do it.”