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Laneway units allow homeowners to earn extra rental income or provide a secondary suite for relatives.LGA Architectural Partners/LGA Architectural Partners

After Gal Reuveni bought a home on Manning Avenue in 2018, he figured he would complete some renovations and build a secondary suite before he moved in with his young family. In the midst of that work, Toronto council approved the new laneway housing bylaw, which allowed eligible homeowners to develop rental laneway suites and forego development charges.

Mr. Reuveni reckoned he should take advantage of the rules and build a laneway home, especially given his property’s close proximity to the street end of the lane behind the house. The prospect of extra rental income appealed to him, as did the notion of creating a living space that he might some day use for his in-laws or his daughter, who is now just 2. More generally, he adds, “I really like the idea of homeowners building more efficient housing” along Toronto’s 300 kilometres of laneways.

However, his plans threatened to run aground because officials in the City of Toronto’s building department had rejected the application because of two firefighter access policies – the same policies that have cropped up in many previous laneway suite applications. “The city has basically made it impossible for these projects to succeed,” Mr. Reuveni said last month. “I’m very frustrated.”

Other homeowners and small contractors had expressed similar concerns about the broader implications for the new laneway program, asserting that the city’s fire safety requirements – which are not subject to minor variance appeals – are ambiguous and overly onerous.

In fact, several appeared at a Building Code Commission (BCC) hearing in mid-December to air their complaints on behalf of clients such as Mr. Reuveni. Shortly before Christmas, the commission found in favour of Mr. Reuveni, allowing him to use automatic sprinklers to address the perceived fire risks flagged by city officials.

Architects who bemoaned what they deemed to be a “lack of clarity” praised the result. Janna Levitt, a partner with LGA Architectural Partners, which has been building laneway housing in Toronto for 30 years, said fire safety rules for laneway suites had become so difficult to meet that it felt like the city had “gone backwards.”

City officials insisted that the rules, though rigid, were meant to protect the residents of the microneighbourhoods that they envision springing up in the laneways of the older parts of Toronto. “If there is a fire emergency [in a laneway suite], firefighters need to be able to get access to that unit,” said Will Johnston, executive director of the city’s Toronto building department. Mr. Johnston is also a former senior building code official in Vancouver, where similar rules accompanied the rollout of that city’s laneway suites program.

Prior to the BCC ruling, chief planner Gregg Lintern added that this issue was addressed in the staff report recommending the laneway suite bylaw. He says that the planning department didn’t attempt to figure out how much of the potential laneway house stock might be ineligible as a result. “Ultimately it’s an [Ontario Building Code] issue that zoning can not set aside,” he said in a text messsage. “We are better off learning from experience than studying it and not getting some lived experience from builders.”

Until the BCC decision, a written version of which will be released in four months, the city’s existing building permit system required laneway suites to be within 45 metres of a fire route, and also 90 metres of a fire hydrant. Laneways do not qualify as fire routes.

What’s more, the rules dictate that there has to be a minimum one-metre-wide access route at the side of the house to enable firefighters carrying gear to get to the house in an emergency. The alleys between most homes in older neighbourhoods served by networks of rear laneways are less than a metre wide.

Until last month, that particular rule also specified that the access route through a side alley had to be entirely on the homeowner’s property. That requirement has been relaxed to allow for shared alleys, which are common in cramped downtown neighbourhoods, Mr. Johnston said. The city will now accept applications from properties with shared alleys, as long as there’s an easement agreement between the owners of the adjacent dwellings to guarantee that the right-of-way remains unobstructed.

(The new guidelines for these shared alleys are available here.)

The original requirement, that the right-of-way had to be entirely within the property, disqualified numerous potential applicants, according to architect Tom Knezic, a principal at Solares Architecture LNWY. Mr. Knezic said that about quarter of qualified application he has handled have been refused because of these regulations.

Mr. Knezic said he had one client’s laneway suite application refused because the alley was .86 metres wide – the same width as the corridors inside houses, which firefighters must also navigate. “Why can’t we use that [width]?” Mr. Knezic asked.

David Hine, a consulting engineer retained by Mr. Reuveni, told the BCC that the city is applying fire safety standards to laneway homes that are meant for larger residential dwellings, such as walk-up apartments or mid-rise buildings.

In the case of the Manning Avenue project, Mr. Reuveni had offered to install an automatic sprinkler system as a way of addressing the city’s concerns, but the idea was “categorically rejected,” Mr. Hine said.

Mr. Johnston defended the existing rules, saying the minimum access route widths are designed to allow firefighters carrying bulky gear to reach an emergency as quickly as possible. He also says that sprinklers on their own don’t guarantee that firefighters can reach the scene. (City of Vancouver rules require all laneway houses to have sprinkler systems.)

Nor will the building department assume that emergency crew can go through the main house, even though firefighters have broad rights to enter premises in order to contain a blaze.

Mr. Hine, who specializes in building and fire code compliance, said that commonly used firefighting techniques (e.g. “surround and drown”), as well as the mandatory use of fire retardant building materials on side walls, can be relied on to contain a blaze. “Fire spread is a manageable thing.”

Long-time laneway housing advocates such as Ms. Levitt also worry that these stringently enforced regulations will cast a chill over the city’s progressive laneway housing program even before it really takes off.

Until the decision in favour of his proposal, Mr. Reuveni said the additional regulatory obstacles and the uncertainty had added delays and cost to a project that initially seemed, to him, like a slam dunk. “To tell you the truth,” Mr. Reuveni said, prior to the BCC ruling, “I would like to be more optimistic about the project [on Manning]." He’s now pressing ahead with securing a building permit, although city officials have informed his designers that they wouldn’t issue one until the BCC had issued its written decision.

Ms. Levitt said this week she’s had many new inquiries since the commission rendered its verdict. But, she warns, the policy won’t formally change until the city and the fire department sign a new memorandum of understanding.

“The only thing that’s changed is that the BCC set a precedent that other applicants to the BCC can [cite] at their hearings,” she wrote in an e-mail. “A great outcome for our client but not yet, for anyone one else.”

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