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View of a garden suite from the City of Toronto report.Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning/Handout

Imagine that, as a homeowner, you could build a small house for your kids in the backyard. Or move into it yourself, and free up your house for others.

That could be possible in Toronto very soon, if city council approves a new set of regulations at its next meeting in February. This is the latest step in city planners’ efforts to open up Toronto house neighbourhoods to new and cheaper forms of housing.

That shift can’t come soon enough. However, these little houses contain a paradox. They’re politically acceptable because they are small; yet what’s needed is a big change.

Toronto’s new policy allows for an apartment to be built in a separate backyard building. The policy is tailored for the city’s postwar neighbourhoods, which are largely typical postwar suburbia: detached houses on lots 50 or more feet wide. In this case, the regulations would allow for modestly sized buildings, no taller than six metres and occupying less than 40 per cent of the backyard area.

When the yards are small, this gets trickier. At council’s planning and housing committee last week, Councillor Brad Bradford moved for the rules to be a bit looser in his ward. “We need to make sure this is technically possible and practically possible,” he said. “If we as a city believe we want to provide more housing options in our neighbourhoods, we need to provide a pathway to build them.”

In the world of planning and urbanism, these homes are generally known as granny flats, or accessory dwelling units (ADU). American municipalities have been embracing them for a decade now. California effectively legalized ADUs at the state level in 2017. In Los Angeles, many are being built, and the city government preapproved a set of standard plans for such dwellings by talented young architects.

It’s all very modest, which is the idea. For half a century the planning world has been committed to the preserving “neighbourhood character,” which above all means restricting the kind of dwellings in an area. Toronto city planning has recently taken bold steps away from that, allowing laneway houses (like backyard suites, but on a laneway) and considering (gasp!) small apartment buildings.

All this is positive change. A decade ago it would have been politically unthinkable. But today, across North America, city planning is changing rapidly. Numerous governments have moved to loosen up their planning rules. The common target is single-family zoning, or “exclusionary zoning”; in short, rules that allow only houses while making apartment buildings illegal.

Far too much land in our cities has that kind of regulation in place. Activists in the YIMBY (Yes in my back yard) housing movement have been arguing – and correctly so – that these rules are classist; that they contribute to a shortage of housing; that they encourage sprawl and are bad for the climate.

As urban rents rise, these arguments are becoming mainstream. Last week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Democratic congresswoman, announced that her political action committee would take a pro-housing approach.

In this context, Toronto’s changes seem awfully modest.

If you own a house, a bit more freedom to house your family members – or to become a landlord – is welcome. If you do not own a house, you probably never will. Detached houses in Toronto now sell for an average of $1.8-million.

This division between those who own property and those who don’t is becoming a gulf. Those on one side of that gulf are angry. Those on the other side have much of the political power, and generally they are hostile to big change. So while Toronto’s city planners are doing what they can, the fact is that more change has to come – and that means buildings too big to hide in a backyard.

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