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Less space for vehicles. More room for people. That’s the gist of a new City of Toronto policy on laneway housing, which jumped an important hurdle at City Hall on Wednesday.

And if that sounds like an obvious public policy decision, you should have been there to hear the discussion.

The occasion was a Toronto East York Community Council meeting. After hours of input from citizens, the councillors adopted a change to the city’s Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw in specific areas, opening the door to physical change in some of Toronto’s house neighbourhoods.

The move is, literally, small. If approved by city council, the new rules would legalize houses up to two storeys along the back lanes of neighbourhoods across the old City of Toronto, lanes that are mostly lined with garages. These new dwellings would be linked legally to the houses in front of them, get their water and electricity via those buildings, and face a variety of restrictions on their size and configuration. The policy, dubbed “Changing Lanes,” isn’t a blank cheque − but it does set out clear rules that would allow such homes to be built. Instead of garages.

“To my mind,” said Councillor Gord Perks, “any time you can convert a place for a car to a place for a human being, it’s a win.”

He’s right. Toronto has thousands of kilometres of laneways cutting through its blocks, but these throughways and the land along them are lightly used. Why not allow homes to be built there?

Letting such development happen was the goal behind this planning initiative, stickhandled by city planner Graig Uens. It picks up on advocacy by local non-profits Evergreen and Lanescape, backed by city councillors Ana Bailao and Mary-Margaret McMahon.

And it’s not a new idea. This move follows three decades of research and advocacy by local architects who’ve seen the potential in these leftover sites. Brigitte Shim, who designed a Leslieville laneway house with partner Howard Sutcliffe in the early 1990s, was there at City Hall to remind the councillors of this history; she and colleague Donald Chong edited a book on laneway development in 2003 and won a city design award for it. Fifteen years later, she was there to cheer on the new rules. “This is a way to ensure there is a continued vitality in these neighbourhoods for decades to come,” she argued.

And that’s an urgent challenge. Many Toronto low-rise neighbourhoods, more than half the city, are losing people. The city needs more dwelling units to house today’s smaller families, at price points that middle-class people can afford − not to mention affordable housing for those who can’t afford the market.

On most of these fronts, this laneway housing proposal is modestly helpful. A grant program could aid the creation of some affordable units. Mostly they would be rental housing that’s cheaper than a big condo and that’s located in the neighbourhoods that Toronto loves so much. A win-win.

And yet, the discussion at community council revealed just how fraught this proposal has been. The public deputations were largely positive: a brigade of young activists, the Ontario Association of Architects and Toronto Society of Architects − as well as Ms. Shim and two former Toronto chief planners − came out in support of the policy. Fathers and sons spoke about their desire to live with extended family in new ways on familiar sites.

But on the other side were heads of residents’ associations. All of them supported the new rules. Sort of.

The ABC Residents Association argued that the regulations should be tightened up, so that individual landowners are forced to go through a city process and get community support − “in order to build those strong relationships with neighbours,” says ABCRA’s Karen Gorsline. And yet she and colleague Glenn Smith spent more than 10 minutes showing why it’s often impossible to “build such relationships.”

“We don’t oppose laneway housing in principle,” said Ms. Gorsline, before she and Mr. Smith explained their concerns about accessibility, fire safety, privacy, overlook, loss of green space, the configuration of windows and doors, and the uncomfortable possibility of their neighbours building a laneway house awfully close to theirs. In short: laneway suites are fine, but not in their backyards.

In one sense you can’t blame them or other baby-boomer homeowners for being uncomfortable. There’s been very little physical change in Toronto’s house neighbourhoods for the past 40 years, except big houses replacing smaller ones. And they don’t understand − or don’t care − that buying a house in central Toronto in 2018 is only for the wealthy. But those are facts and there will be, in the years to come, more change to the neighbourhoods. Maybe new dwellings will, one day, move out of the alleys and into the light.

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