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Alex Sharpe, Craig Race and Andrew Sorbara.

With thousands of homes backing onto 300 kilometres of rear alleys across the city, laneway rentals could become useful sources of supplementary income for homeowners

On a recent sunny weekend afternoon, dog walkers, a few children and even the occasional automobile meandered along Bill Cameron Lane, a pleasant corridor extending from Hepbourne Street down to College, just west of Dovercourt. The laneway, named after the late CBC news anchor, is lined with tumble-down garages, open-air parking spots, graffiti-tagged fences, plus a few brick structures of varying sizes that have been colonized and turned into housing.

Surveying this languid but distinctively urban vista, Craig Race, Andrew Sorbara and Alex Sharpe envision how places such as this – and there are a lot of them around the older city – someday could become neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods, as homeowners convert or rebuild the rear-facing garages into affordable rental units. They are co-founders of Lanescape, an advocacy group for maximizing the housing potential in Toronto's laneways.

"It's going to be a slow, gradual uptake," says Mr. Sharpe, predicting the laneway will work much the way it does now, except it will be home to more people.

But that vision turns on some key changes in the city's planning rules.

Earlier this month, Lanescape, working with Evergreen, planning consultants Crazy Dames and two city councillors, released the results of a wide-ranging survey of an ambitious proposal to council that would allow homeowners to create laneway suites as a means of adding affordable rental units, plus income opportunities, to the thousands of homes whose lots back onto one of the city's 2,400 laneways, with a combined length of about 300 kilometres.

While those who follow urban design trends likely have tuned in to many stories about architecturally distinctive one-off laneway homes, the Lanescape plan is all about creating more rental units, as opposed to self-contained homes on small rear-facing lots that have been severed and developed, often at substantial cost.

Laneway rental suite sketch by Lanescape.

Indeed, the study's proponents point to what's happening in over-priced Vancouver, where over 2,000 rental laneway houses have sprung up since 2009, when the municipality changed its rules.

"This is about secondary suites," said Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao, who adds many of her Davenport constituents want to add that kind of unit at the rear of their lot to provide grown children with affordable housing. She and Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Beaches-East York) are backing the study.

While many homes backing on laneways were once working class dwellings in relatively inexpensive areas, they now often sell for over $1-million and require buyers to take on such large mortgages that they plan to rent part of the dwelling. Indeed, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. study published in December identified laneway suites as "mortgage helpers" that can generate supplementary income.

With downtown rental rates also skyrocketing, these kinds of suites could put a slight dent in that dynamic, although a more enduring solution lies in the development of more purpose-built rental housing along transit-accessible arterials.

"The City has to get fully on board, which is no small feat," says architect Meg Graham, a principal at Superkül who has designed laneway homes. She points out that the current official plan doesn't support these kinds of uses, even though basement apartments are now legal across the city.

Laneway housing sketch by Lanescape.

The report, based on a well-attended consultation process held earlier this year, identifies a few key impediments to unlocking laneway rental housing. Ms Bailao said that if the development guidelines don't involve severing the lot, and allow the homeowner to bring water and utility service in from the front rather than off the lane, some of the most significant regulatory and community objections disappear.

Lanescape and its partners are also developing off-the-rack design guidelines that will cover basic issues such as height, size, massing, physical access, parking and privacy. The goal, said Mr. Sorbara, is to permit a homeowner to develop a laneway suite without jumping through all sorts of regulatory hoops, as is now the case with standalone laneway housing. "We can't have this subject to rezoning applications," he added. "They shouldn't even go to committee of adjustment."

Ms. Graham added that because homeowners already own the land, the eventual development costs will likely be far lower than a severed laneway house. Still, she warned, such projects will likely require a significant outlay. "If you think you're going to get this done for $50,000 or even $100,000 – you're not."