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Kathy Wainburg's project in Toronto's St. Clair West area.LANESCAPE

Kathy Wainburg, a renovator, decided to take advantage of the City of Toronto’s new garden suites bylaw with a home she owns in the St. Clair West area, but her project had a bit of a twist. Council moved to allow garden suites – also known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – last year, with a bylaw that allows homeowners to erect a freestanding structure in their backyards – a move ostensibly meant to add “gentle density” to house neighbourhoods that have seen steady population declines in recent decades.

The new rules theoretically permit garden suites to be up to 60 square metres (about 650 square feet), subject to certain design restrictions, including set-backs, angular planes on the second floor and unimpeded access to the street. But if these boxes could be checked, these projects would be approved “as of right,” meaning no re-zonings or lengthy committee of adjustment appeals.

Ms. Wainburg wanted to build a structure adjacent to a new backyard pool, with a cabana on the main floor and a one-bedroom apartment on the second. Her designer, Matt Hagen of Lanescape, included a cantilevered canopy off the side to provide a shady area next to the pool.

But that canopy – a feature that wouldn’t normally attract any attention from planners – turned out to be, if not a show stopper, then certainly a source of bureaucratic friction that has held up an approvals process that was supposed to be much more seamless. The reason: the planning examiner decided to count the area under the overhang as part of the allowable floor space for the entire garden suite, which means reducing the interior area.

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A rendering shows how overhangs count against the maximum floor space.Fabrication Studio

“I’ve dealt with the city before,” Ms. Wainburg says with a sigh, “so I know what it’s like.”

As mayor-elect Olivia Chow prepares to take office with a clear mandate to accelerate approvals for all forms of housing, such experiences – which are entirely commonplace – may receive more scrutiny from owners and investors aiming to add rental units ranging from modest garden suites to the newly approved multiplex buildings to high-rises on public land.

Over the past four years, council has voted to allow the development of laneway suites, garden suites, rooming houses, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes anywhere in the city “as of right,” subject to specific conditions set out in the bylaws.

In California, similar reforms have triggered an ADU building boom in recent years. “The number of ADU permits issued across California increased from almost 9,000 in 2018 to 12,392 in 2020,” a 2021 University of California Berkeley study found. “From 2018 to 2020, Californian jurisdictions permitted 33,881 ADUs and 22,695 ADUs were added to the state’s housing supply.” Most, the study goes on to say, were in transit-oriented and relatively affluent neighbourhoods with a large proportion of new homeowners or owners carrying a mortgage.

Toronto’s progress over the same time frame has been halting by comparison. To date, the City says it has issued building permits for 423 laneway houses. The planning department has received 149 applications for garden suites, with 55 permits issued. As for multiplexes, the City in 2022 received 402 applications duplexes and triplexes. And so far this year, another 313 applications for projects up to four units have come over the transom. (The planning department will monitor the use of the garden suites bylaw until next year or the 200th application, whichever comes first.)

While city officials have worked out most of the bugs from the laneway suite bylaw – e.g., allowing the use of sprinkler systems as an alternative form of fire safety for units further away from hydrants than the bylaw specifies – the garden suites regulations are still forcing homeowners and their consultants to spend months haggling over seemingly trivial details.

Mr. Hagen says he’s encountered several projects where planning staff have insisted that exterior features such as planter boxes and overhangs above the main door are counted against the maximum overall floor space, which is already constrained due to regulations that require garden suites to have second-floor rooms with sloped walls to satisfy angular plane rules. “Every square inch counts,” he says, noting that a strict application of the bylaw will produce boxy structures that lack external adornments considered entirely commonplace in any other residential dwelling. “It’s another road block.”

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Under Toronto's garden suites bylaw, even a modest overhang, like the one over the front door here, counts against the maximum floor space.Brandon Donnelly

And not the only one. According to Mr. Hagen, other projects have gotten tangled up in obscure rules around rights-of-way between adjacent properties that share, for example, a driveway. In some cases, the right-of-way only exists on a survey – the shared drive is open – but planning examiners insist that access to the garden suite in the rear yard must, in such cases, be entirely on the owner’s property – a provision that can be a deal-breaker due to fire access standards. “It’s just another layer of uncertainty.”

Architect Francois Abbott cites other instances where redundant or antiquated rules have forced clients to spend thousands of dollars and months waiting for approvals. He mentions a garden suite project in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood where the owner wants to replace an old garage, but the piece of land sits within six metres of a corner, which, according to old zoning rules, is off limits. In that case, his client had to wait for eight weeks to get a new survey, only to be told by the examiner that the project had to go to committee of adjustment, which cost another $8,000. “It’s a long and expensive dance,” he says. “[The approval] should be very quick.”

Fast-tracking ADUs

In 2021, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) glommed on to a new way to manage the torrent of applications for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as garden suites are known in the U.S. The boom began in the late 2010s, when state legislators passed a series of laws meant to prevent municipalities from blocking ADUs. These included a mandatory two-month turn-around on applications – a time-line that remains something of a fantasy here.

To circumnavigate the cumbersome work of processing individual applications, LADBS officials set to work preapproving standardized designs produced by local architecture firms. According to the department’s website, homeowners can choose from 72 models, in various shapes and sizes. These are itemized in a kind of online catalogue, complete with floor plans and renderings, not unlike the “pattern books” that Canada Mortgage and Housing created in the 1940s and 1950s to hasten new home construction. The designs are the intellectual property of the firm that created them. LADPS also publishes approvals metrics.

California is by no means alone in expediting ADUs as a means of battling the urban housing crisis. For example, in Portland, widely seen as ground zero of the American ADU revolution, turn-around times run from two to four months.

Not all California cities have embraced the new rules. A recent study by the Pacific Legal Foundation found that the city of San Diego, for example, saw its application turnaround times lengthen in the past few years in response to opposition from local politicians and homeowners.

Still, as Toronto architect Francoise Abbott points out, Toronto’s planning department should set up a dedicated team of planners that only processes ADUs, as is done in some U.S. cities. “That’s so smart,” he says. “Because the amount of the knowledge you need to approve one or to understand what’s happening is so simple. It’s so simple.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to designer Matt Hagen as an architect. This version has been corrected.

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