Why tiny backyard homes might be the next big thing in Toronto

Councillors are set to take the next step towards legalizing a new kind of housing: garden suites as the housing committee takes up the issue on Tuesday at Toronto city hall.

City set to pave way for granny flats, coach houses as legal dwellings

Meg Marshall says the city's willingness to look seriously at legalizing garden suites is a positive step toward easing the housing shortage, and possibly a way for millennials to build assets in a tight housing market. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

City councillors are set to take the next step towards legalizing a new kind of housing: garden suites. 

Sometimes known as granny flats or coach houses, they're structures — either existing or purpose-built — at the rear of some backyards in which people can legally live.

The city's housing committee meets Tuesday to launch consultations aimed at a new bylaw that would legalize and regulate the units. The push for garden suites comes at a time when Toronto is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis with real estate prices still out of reach for many and a waiting list for affordable housing with the names of nearly 80,000 people on it.

"They permit, in the same way that laneway suites do, the gentle intensification of our neighbourhoods," said Michelle Senayah, founder of the Laneway Project, an advocacy group that's now turning its attention to garden suites. 

Michelle Senayah, founder of the Laneway Project, says legalizing garden suites allows for 'gentle intensification' of neighbourhoods. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

The difference between the two is that laneway suites, legalized about two years ago, must have separate rear access, whereas garden suites do not.

"They permit old folks to age in place in the same neighbourhoods they've already been," Senayah said.

"They permit us to inject population where there's already social infrastructure, like libraries and schools and community centres."

For Meg Marshall, who shares a house near Bloor Street West and Dufferin Street with her aunt, garden suites hold another kind of promise: 

"As a millennial, trying to buy property on my own, unmarried, no kids, as a single individual, it's really tough," she said.

"So at this stage in my life, this is the next best thing to do to have equity and have an asset under my name."

Coun. Ana Bailão, who chairs the housing committee at city hall, says in the best- case scenario, the city would have a bylaw in place regulating garden suites by the summer. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Marshall's family home already had a coach house at the rear, but because there's no adjacent laneway, the family wasn't allowed to use it as a dwelling.

She's hoping to renovate it and call it home as soon as the new bylaw regulating garden suites is passed by council, something that Coun. Ana Bailão, who chairs the housing committee, says could happen as soon as this summer.

"We want to make sure that we create ... the guidelines to ensure that we address issues of privacy, and shadow," Bailão said.

"We want to make sure that these integrate well into our neighbourhoods."

Public consultations would be the next step, she said, and a report is expected to be sent to the housing committee by the spring of 2021. 

That report would set out proposed regulations for the new suites — things like the minimum distance from the main house, maximum heights and shade created, as well as where windows could be placed.

Whenever the new regulations are in place, they cannot come soon enough for Rod Wilson. His renovated coach house in The Beach seemed like the perfect place for his aging father, until the city stepped in earlier this year and told him his father would have to move because the suite was illegal.

"I think it's great," Wilson said Monday.

"My dad is also still around and very excited, at 91 now ... He seems to think it's a slam dunk, but I'll believe it when the city comes along and takes a look at it and says yeah this place is perfect."

Meg Marshall's coach house is at least part of the way there. She's been trying to spruce it up for some time in preparation for the new bylaw.

"If the stars align I'd love to be in that first cluster of garden suites that are approved by the city," she said.

"It's really neat. It shows that the city is being progressive; it shows that the city is attacking the lack of housing in a creative way."


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