JANUARY 13, 2022
Senior planner David Driedger has been busy fielding calls from residents interested in garden suites, the newest option the city is considering adding to Toronto’s housing mix.
Even though the backyard homes haven’t yet been approved, he says homeowners are interested in the prospect of creating their own housing solutions.
On Wednesday, the city’s planning and housing committee will consider planning staff recommendations to permit garden suites. The new bylaw would likely go to council for approval in February.
Garden suites would permit a huge swath of residents, those whose lots don’t back on an alley, to build a second home in their backyards in the same way second houses have been popping up along alleys in the city’s core since the city introduced laneway-suite rules in 2018.
Planners say backyard suites, along with basement apartments and multiplexes in streets of single-family homes, are all ways to diversify the housing mix in neighbourhoods that are already rich in amenities but low on affordability.
Driedger says there are plenty of Torontonians interested in redeploying their real estate as prices climb and housing supply plummets. Residents are looking for opportunities to help their adult children and parents, downsize themselves or create an avenue for rental income to make their own home more affordable.
It also introduces rental housing in neighbourhoods where it is scarce. “You don’t have these somewhat more modest-size units that are detached, and that would have a different kind of market point than other housing supply,” said Driedger.
Architect Craig Race has already been involved in more than 80 laneway home projects — the forerunner to garden suites. About half those homes, which are in varying stages of development, are intended for use by the families who own the original house. The others are rental income properties.
“That is enough housing for 200 people — children leaving the nest, grandparents returning to the nest, new Canadians, and new Torontonians,” wrote Race and his colleagues, in a group called Lanescape, to the planning and housing committee.
Among the half of his clients who are building suites for family use, Race said most are planning accommodation for adult children. But there are retirees setting up a pied-à-terre where they can live between travels while renting their original house. Lately, he said, there’s an interest in using them as home offices, “the ultimate in isolation.”
“Whenever people go back to the office they can just rent them out or put a loved one in there,” he said.
The city’s chief planner Gregg Lintern says the regulations around garden suites ensure they don’t impinge on the neighbours and that the backyard houses will be smaller than the original home on the lot.
“People still expect a certain level of enjoyment and privacy and we struck that balance,” he said.
The planning report also lays out environmental and tree protections.
It says garden suites, which cannot be severed from the original house, can occupy a maximum of 40 per cent of a home’s backyard up to 60 square metres. The garden suite and any other structures cannot exceed 20 per cent of the total lot.
Committee of Adjustment could approve a minor variance in some cases if the suite is being built on a larger lot under some conditions, including the maintenance of neighbours’ privacy.
The maximum height would be four metres unless the suite is at least five metres from the main house. Six-metre heights will be allowed if the garden suite is 7.5 metres from the main house but balconies and decks are allowed only on the ground floor of the suites.
Deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, city councillor for Don Valley East, said he isn’t sure the backyard homes will be welcome in his suburban ward. But, he noted, the planning report promises to monitor the garden suite program for two years or until the first 200 are built and the rules would be adapted according to those findings.
“People like their front yards and they like their backyards. Taking out all that green space and replacing that with bricks and cement and impacting shadows … I can’t see that being appreciated,” said Minnan-Wong.
He also wonders whether the ability to build two homes on one lot will lead to more redevelopment and commercialization of neighbourhood homes.
Building and real estate experts say that is unlikely. Race says the laneway suite rules have shown it’s not as easy as it looks to throw up another home in the backyard and the majority of those who go ahead are the homeowners.
“They already have the space and they’re not going anywhere. So they can put that space to good use,” he said.
Real estate broker John Pasalis of Toronto’s Realosophy doesn’t see garden suites as a magnet for speculative investors. They might be like swimming pools — a specific feature that appeals to a particular segment of the market, he said.
“I’ve talked to a couple of people considering a garden suite and one of the barriers preventing them from doing it is the resale value. Yes, the garden suite adds to the value, but will it add $500,000, which is what it might cost to build?”
It also means the main house loses part of its backyard, which reduces the resale value, said Pasalis. The builders most likely to build a garden suite, he said, are probably converting a single family home to a multiplex, with the garden suite being an additional unit.
“This is not speculative. This is adding more density and housing to the city,” he said.
Toronto’s experience with laneway suites and that of other Ontario cities that have already adapted garden suites, including Windsor and Kitchener, suggest their role in transforming neighbourhood character and the housing market will be gradual.
Kitchener planner Richard Kelly-Ruetz says there have been 16 applications and five building permits issued since that city made 25,000 lots eligible for garden suites in April. Kitchener ran a design contest for residents to submit their ideas on what backyard homes, as they’re often called, could look like.
“One of our key zoning rules is that if someone is building a backyard home on their property the maximum size of it can be half the size of the main house. That’s gone a long way to making sure that the backyard home would really look like any other detached structure like a shed. We also have a cap in the zoning, so if you have a very large main house, the maximum size that the backyard home is about 850 square feet,” he said.
Toronto head planner Lintern says it’s important to remember that, although people think Toronto neighbourhoods haven’t changed, they have never been static.
He says garden suites are part of “a quiet evolution of neighbourhoods” — solutions that have been hiding in plain site.
“People are realizing they’ve got some options here. They’ve got a place for their kid to live, creating a bit of distance and a bit of comfort.”