How Laneway Housing Could Increase Housing Supply in Toronto

Listen to “How Laneway Housing Could Increase Housing Supply in Toronto” on Spreaker.

Guest Speaker: Andrew Sorbara

Co-Founder, Lanescape

His Insights

  • What Lanescape is and how it started
  • Would laneway housing improve the rental supply in Toronto?
  • What stopped Toronto from having more laneway housing in the past
  • Are there other cities with laneway housing?
  • Pushback from homeowners who feel their neighbourhood would become too crowded
  • The cost for a home owner to change a garage into a laneway house and what would be involved in the conversion
  • How many laneway houses could we have in the city if they were allowed?
  • The steps of getting the City of Toronto to allow laneway housing
  • Has Andrew had any support from council on this?
  • Andrews results from the survey about laneway housing
  • What other roadblocks are there to making laneway housing possible?

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Davelle M.:        Welcome to the Morrison Report. I wanted to create a podcast that would give people insights into the Toronto real estate market. You can follow me on Twitter at Davelle Morrison and on Instagram as Davelle Morrison and you can like my business page on Facebook.

Welcome everyone. Thanks so much for joining us. Today we have Andrew Sorbara, co-founder of Lanescape with us. Today we’re going to talk about laneway housing in Toronto and how it can help to ease the housing supply crisis we’re facing in the city. Andrew, can you tell us a little bit about what Lanescape is and how it got started?

Andrew S.:         Sure. Lanescape is a citizen advocacy group that was founded by three of us who came together about two and a half years ago with a joint interest in kind of promoting the laneway housing agenda in Toronto which had stagnated for so many years. We got together. We developed a plan that we thought would eliminate many of the roadblocks that have existed previously for laneway housing. We approached two counselors at city hall that we knew quite well that we knew were interested in laneway housing from both an affordability point of view and kind of increasing the variety of housing stock point of view. After a period of about a year and a half we finally got a work plan in place, got the nod of the chief planner, had a couple of community [planners 00:01:49] assigned to work with us, then we scheduled a series of community consultations which took place in fall 2016.

Davelle M.:        Wow, that sounds really interesting. Do you think that laneway housing can help improve the housing supply problem that we have in Toronto?

Andrew S.:         Yeah, it absolutely can. There are certainly many thousands of new rental units that can be produced as a result of some policy changes that would permit laneway based housing to be developed. I will say that our proposal, [though 00:02:18], is very specific in the sense that we’re not suggesting that laneway houses could be built and then severed off. What we’re suggesting is that additional suites that could either be used by the owner of the principal dwelling or could be rented out should be allowed to be, should be permitted to be built as detached secondary suites on a property.

All of the kind of traditional mechanisms for servicing for higher access followed with collection, that would all kind of remain in place and would all be accessed by the principal, through the main street. In order to get this housing, get the policy changed quickly, get this housing built to try and alleviate some of the kind of affordability and rental issues we have in this city this was the most effective and fastest route to getting something done.

Our model is a model that exists, has existed in Vancouver since 2009 and has resulted in the construction of about 2500 laneway dwellings there which is more than the purpose built rentals built in Toronto during that same time I’m told.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         It’s a very kind of effective, straight forward solution to laneway housing.

Davelle M.:        Absolutely. What other, you mentioned Vancouver, what other cities have you seen do laneway housing, around the world or in Canada?

Andrew S.:         Well let’s, we’ll speak about Canada because it’s kind of the most immediate context.

Davelle M.:        Of course.

Andrew S.:         Cities across Canada, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, even cities like Regina and Ottawa, have enacted policies to permit what they’re calling detached secondary suites. Again, in may cases, even if properties don’t front onto laneways, these cities have wanted to create a policy mechanism to allow property owners to create detached rental suites or detached suites on their property for use of them. We’ve heard a lot from the citizens of Toronto about the need for more multi-generational living and there are parents who want …

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         … To have their adult children. There are parents who want to move into the laneway house because they aren’t necessarily going to be spending as much time in Toronto and they recognize the affordability issue and want to be able to provide housing for their children. Many cities in Canada have an active policy to permit these detached secondary suites even though they don’t have laneways. And I will say that the province of Ontario has, through the planning act, it has directed municipalities to come up with mechanisms to allow for this kind of what they’re called detached secondary suites to be constructed because they recognize that it improves the overall housing mix. It makes use of existing infrastructure in existing neighborhoods. When it’s done thoughtfully it can be a huge asset to the city in many central Toronto neighborhoods.

When I started this project I kind of walked up and down a number of different laneways. One of the things that struck me was here we have an incredible resource that is totally under-utilized.

Davelle M.:        Absolutely.

Andrew S.:         You sort of see what the fabric of our residential neighborhoods typically is kind of long narrow lots. There is a great opportunity to really produce some thoughtful density along our laneways.

Davelle M.:        Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely. I mean what do you think has stopped the city of Toronto from doing the laneway housing in the past? What are some of the roadblocks that the city’s faced or perceives?

Andrew S.:         laneway housing and laneway houses that we currently see are much larger than that which we are proposing. We are proposing really kind of like bachelor, one bedroom, the largest is like a two bedroom rental suite.

Davelle M.:        Yeah.

Andrew S.:         We’ve tested a variety of different scenarios and are developing a set of performance standards that address many of the issues that we heard during our community consultation process, mostly related to privacy, overlook and loss of green space, that kind of thing. The laneway houses that we see currently have been one-off approvals and they’ve often taken extremely long amounts of time and cost a lot of money, both in terms of the design and approvals, but as well in terms of the construction.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         The city, all the technical issues that I’ve mentioned of course are always present. Really what made the difference this time is that, you know, we came together as an outside group and approached the city and said we want to partner with you to get this change. This is an issue that we’re passionate about and we’re willing to put the work in to get this done now. City planning didn’t have the resources to do it at this point and so they kind of welcomed the opportunity to work with a group where … Myself, I have a real estate development and planning background. I have my two partners. One is an architect and the other one has a commercial real estate background.

Davelle M.:        Awesome.

Andrew S.:         We know the lay of the land. We know how the system works. We brought expertise to the table and partnered with Evergreen to do the community consultations through their City Works initiative. Yeah, it’s worked out really well. The one thing that’s really pleased us is how positive the residents of the city have been towards this kind of thing.

Davelle M.:        Ah, okay.

Andrew S.:         We expected kind of more mixed reviews. We recognized the fact that we were speaking to communities on a much more general basis, asking for their ideas and input. We do recognize the fact that, you know, people can be supportive but when a construction is happening next door and they see something going up that potentially kind of eliminating a little sunlight from their back yard, then things may change. That’s a whole process that we have to negotiate very carefully and we have to produce a set of performance standards that kind of minimize the impacts on neighbors when one of these things is actually built.

Davelle M.:        Interesting. It’s funny because I was going to ask you, you know, what you think, if there’s going to be any push back from homeowners? Do you think that some of the homeowners will feel that their neighborhoods are becoming too crowded if you have sort of this secondary group of people that are sort of living in the back of all the houses? Have people sort of voiced that concern?

Andrew S.:         That has been a concern. It hasn’t been as pronounced as I would have expected initially.

Davelle M.:        Okay.

Andrew S.:         Again, I do think that one of the nice things about this whole approach and the approach that we’re taking, is that once the policy is put in place if everything goes successfully over the next year the changes are going to happen so incrementally, right, so we’ll be able to kind of … Whole neighborhoods are not going to be, their laneways aren’t going to be redeveloped over the course of a few years.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         This is going to happen very very incrementally so we’ll have a chance to kind of, you know, once one is built we can monitor it, assess it. Determine whether or not we need to make some changes to the policy because it’s incremental which I think is really important. These changes aren’t going to result in an overhaul of what we call these stable neighborhoods over the course of the few years.

Davelle M.:        Right. How much do you think it would cost for a homeowner to change a garage into a laneway house and what would be involved in doing that kind of a conversion?

Andrew S.:         What we’re suggesting is that in most cases the laneway house would be built kind of, it would be a new build. It wouldn’t involve converting an existing garage. The cost would be similar to what it would cost to build a house in Toronto. I mean it depends on the standard of finish. We heard a lot from residents about their desire to have these dwellings kind of function in a very sustainable way. As you know that’s a big topic these days. It came up quite a bit. Sustainability costs a little bit more to implement but results in cost savings over the course of the lifespan of the building. I hesitate to give a number but it’s certainly not out of line with what it costs to build a standard residential unit in Toronto.

Davelle M.:        Got it. You’re talking about these people would have to bring heat, utilities, all that kind of stuff into some sort of backyard space to build that house. It could cost anywhere between let’s say 150 to 300 thousand dollars to build an entirely new structure?

Andrew S.:         Yeah, those numbers are reasonable. I will say that what we’re trying, we’re working with technical divisions at city hall to try and come up with an approach that minimizes what we’re calling unnecessary costs.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         For example, in Ottawa the approach that they’ve taken is that when a property builds a detached secondary suite they don’t necessarily have to install a total new set of service connections from the main municipal services. They branch off the connection on private property which seriously reduces the cost of construction by thousands and thousands of dollars.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         Similarly we’re looking at an approvals process that’s straightforward and kind of costs as little as possible. We recognize the fact that when you’re building a bachelor or one bedroom unit you can’t necessarily be obliged to pay development charges, for example, which amounts to, you know, that’s … When we’re talking about development charges and parks levies that could potentially add 60, 70 thousand dollars to the cost of one of these things.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         We’re doing our best to kind of make sure … Our goal really is to create a mechanism, establish a mechanism whereby property owners across the city can actually go and build these things affordably and with the very, very predictable design strategy and approvals process. We feel without that these houses actually won’t be built and we won’t be addressing affordability. We won’t be addressing the rental crisis because they won’t be built in as widespread a way as we need them to be.

Davelle M.:        Right, yeah, that makes sense absolutely, if they’re too expensive people won’t be able to justify the cost of doing them.

Andrew S.:         No. The average family has, in these days, aging parents. The average set of aging parents in this city won’t necessarily be able to afford to spend 900 thousand dollars to build a two bedroom apartment in the backyard. That’s not realistic.

Davelle M.:        Exactly. Although, you know, it’s interesting because you know you could take, if they’ve got a large enough house, they build a house for themselves in the back and let their kids move into the original house, given how expensive things have become. Maybe if it’s only 300 thousand dollars to build that two bedroom unit then that makes sense if you house is already worth a million and a half to two million dollars anyways.

Andrew S.:         Mm-hmm (affirmative), makes sense.

Davelle M.:        Yeah. How many laneway houses do you think that we could have if the city would allow something like this? You mentioned that it’s not going to be happening right away but [crosstalk 00:12:10]

Andrew S.:         We have about 250 kilometers of laneways in the city of Toronto so that’s a substantial network. I’ve heard various estimates but it’s certainly many thousands of units could be constructed over the course of time. It is a significant resource that has not been properly utilized to date.

Davelle M.:        Absolutely.

Andrew S.:         I think this will happen, the tick up will be slow at first but I think over the course of the next decade if everything works out well we could see several thousand of these units be created.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         One of the things that the official plan states is that although the neighborhoods that are designated stable neighborhoods, although we want to preserve the physical character of them we recognize the fact that through kind of demographic and socio-economic changes we have to look at ways to kind of very sensibly alter them so that they remain kind of vibrant. [crosstalk 00:13:08] I think this is an approach that allows for that.

Davelle M.:        Yeah, absolutely, I would agree. I think it’s a great idea. I think we should sort of hurry up and get it going. Yeah, absolutely, I think it’s a wonderful idea. What’s involved with the city of Toronto allowing to have laneway housing? I guess there’s just some sort of rules?

Andrew S.:         [crosstalk 00:13:27] The processes?

Davelle M.:        Yeah, what’s their processor, what’s involved with them actually approving this?

Andrew S.:         The process that we agreed upon with kind of the chief planner was that we would hold our [inaudible 00:13:40] for consultations which we held the two community consultations, a city-wide consultation last fall. We produced a consultation report that was, I believe it was made public a couple of weeks ago. We’re in the process now of drafting a series of performance standards and design guidelines for laneway housing based on what we heard from residents and best practices in other cities.

They’ll form part of a recommendations report that Lanescape will co-author with Evergreen. We are hoping to have that go to Toronto Community Council in June. At which point Council will consider it and the next step would be for Council to receive the report and to direct city staff, including planning staff to develop the policy framework necessary in order to allow these things to be developed. We would be more than willing to assist in any way that we can after that. Yeah, we will be producing a recommendations report that will go to Community Council.

Davelle M.:        Interesting. What kind of support have you seen from City Council on this? You mentioned there was a couple of councilors that were working with you.

Andrew S.:         Yeah, Councilors Ana Bailao and Mary-Margaret McMahon have been very supportive. They see the merit here. They’ve been kind of championing this at City Council. There are some city councilors that are very supportive. There are others that have expressed certain concerns which of course are valid. This is something new. There are issues that have to be resolved. What we’ve heard is in principle this is good and let’s see what the details look like.

Davelle M.:        Right, of course. Do you know if there’s support from the mayor on something like this?

Andrew S.:         We have yet to meet with the mayor’s office. That’s something that we hope to do before June.

Davelle M.:        Got it. You were mentioning earlier about the survey that you did on laneway housing. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and share with us some of the results or insights that you’ve learned from the survey?

Andrew S.:         Yeah, of course. The survey is ongoing so we don’t have any definitive results just yet. We do have, I believe at this point there’s kind of close to 3000 responses. Most of the responses have come from those people who live in neighborhoods with laneways as you imagine. Generally residents are supportive. We’re taking very seriously resident’s comments here. I think that for me what has been more telling than the survey has been the inquiries that we’ve received through our website. We respond personally to everyone who does submit an inquiry. Many people have expressed interest in learning more about this process and what it could potentially yield.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         We’ve had about 100 individual conversations. I know we’re talking about a city of three million people that might not be a lot but it certainly is a broad spectrum of data that we’ve been able to use. I would say that as part of the survey we asked specific questions about how tall should a laneway suite be, where should the windows be located, that kind of thing. There’s generally been support for laneway houses that are fairly modest.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         No one wants to see this three story construction popping up in backyards all over the city.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         One of the things that was actually very interesting which I didn’t expect is that most residents did not think parking needed to be included. Most residents were actually in favor of removing existing parking spaces. For taking a garage that had maybe one or two parking spaces, building a laneway suite and not worrying about having to contain a parking space within the structure.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         We, as part of the process that we’re going through now we’re, our performance standards kind of, we’ve made sure that the kind of standard footprint, et cetera, et cetera, could accommodate a parking space if the builder of the laneway suite wanted to add one in there.

Davelle M.:        Right.

Andrew S.:         We don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for us to advocate that parking spaces be removed.

Davelle M.:        Right. No, that makes a lot of sense, for sure, definitely. Can you tell our listeners where they can go on the website to find the survey or where they can go to your website to learn more information?

Andrew S.:         It’s and the survey, it’s a quick, it’s very, very easy to look up the survey there. Which it would be great to get as many responses as possible. Of course that just increases the amount of data that we have to work with. We also have a Twitter and Facebook feed that can be accessed through the website. There’s lots of good information there that’s updated fairly regularly. I will say that if someone does respond to the survey their email address forms part of a data base that we can use to update them on any kind of developments that take place.

Davelle M.:        Ah, cool, that’s awesome.

Andrew S.:         Yeah.

Davelle M.:        Are there any other roadblocks that you see to making this happen apart from city council, costs, anything else that might be a roadblock to this kind of thing happening?

Andrew S.:         I just think it’s important for us to produce an excellent report and to get it reviewed by all the right people before it went to Community Council. I think we should be okay. I think that the amount of public support and media attention have really helped people understand what we’re proposing. This is kind of a very sensitive solution to laneway housing compared to what’s been proposed in the past.

Davelle M.:        Got it. Is there anything else that you think my listeners should know about laneway housing before we close?

Andrew S.:         I think we’ve covered most of the topics. If anyone wants more information on the kind of performance standards that we’re proposing the report will be released in June and we’d be happy to share details of that at that time.

Davelle M.:        Awesome, that sounds great. I always like to ask everyone who I’m interviewing what part of the city do they live in and whether they rent or they own so can you tell us a little bit about your situation Andrew?

Andrew S.:         Yeah, I live on the Niagara Street in the King and [Bathurst 00:19:37] area.

Davelle M.:        Awesome.

Andrew S.:         I live in a project that I actually worked on about twelve, thirteen years ago in a kind of a small six story building.

Davelle M.:        Great.

Andrew S.:         It’s been mesmerizing to watch this area change over the course of the past decade.

Davelle M.:        Yeah, absolutely, I think there’s been so much change along King West over the last few years.

Andrew S.:         100%.

Davelle M.:        Absolutely. Cool. Well, thank you so much for joining us today Andrew.

Andrew S.:         A pleasure.

Davelle M.:        Thanks. Thanks again for joining us for some Toronto real estate market insights. You can visit my website at or visit for more episodes of the podcast. Thanks for listening.