Most Canadian cities have been looking for affordable housing alternatives for several decades. Since purpose-built rental housing became so difficult to build starting in the 1980s, cities have grasped at the low-hanging fruit, such as allowing secondary suites and laneway housing. Both allow cities to add some smaller, more affordable units in established residential neighbourhoods; increased density is another bonus.

Secondary Suites

Secondary suites (self-contained units within existing dwellings) are allowed in cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and smaller cities such as Kelowna. CMHC surveyed 650 municipalities located within Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations in 2014, and found that 88% of the large municipalities (populations over 100,000) permit secondary suites as well as 85% of medium-sized (30,000-99,999) and 82% of small (5,000-29,999) municipalities. Often they are basement apartments, but they can be arranged differently depending on the city’s bylaw.

Vancouver has a really easy to understand guide for property owners who want to create a secondary suite with diagrams showing the possible configurations. CMHC estimated that there were 26,000 secondary suites in Vancouver in 2014: one-fifth of the city’s rental housing stock. Vancouver and Edmonton allow the units as-of-right in residential land use zones. Calgary introduced new rules to streamline the process for approving secondary suites this spring, in part hoping that the many illegal units in the city would comply with the new rules during the two-year amnesty period. Other cities, like Mississauga, have struggled to implement secondary suites, introducing then modifying their by-law and process several times. Toronto has allowed secondary suites since 1996.

Laneway Housing

Laneway housing units are more unusual in Canadian cities. They are found in cities with the prewar grid street pattern, because they face onto back lanes and not onto the street. Edmonton first allowed them (calling them “garden suites”) in 2007 and eased restrictions on them in 2015 to allow them in most areas of the city. The city is expected to have a new laneway housing strategy in place this year. In Vancouver, a laneway housing guide, formal guidelines, regulations and an application checklist make it easy for property owners to develop them. Calgary has a guide to laneway suites that follows two households through the process of approval and building them. In Ottawa, rules allowing “coach houses” (secondary units that are not contained within the main dwelling) were just introduced last year and still face opposition in wealthier neighbourhoods like Rockcliffe Park.

Toronto has lagged behind these cities: Council rejected a proposal for laneway housing in 2006. They have objected to the idea on the grounds that laneway units would require servicing along the lanes, they would interfere with existing services like garbage collection, and they could change the character of existing neighbourhoods. The city has an astonishing 2,400 lanes available (300 km of underused space). They decided to review laneway suites last July, and held community meetings through the winter. A survey of 3,000 residents in December found that 91% of residents supported the idea. Finally, chief planner Greg Lintern acknowledges that even in traditional neighbourhoods, there has been gradual change such as decreasing family sizes. A new report recommending that the city adopt laneway housing will make its way to the East York Community council this week, then City Council next month.

Secondary suites and laneway housing are just two ways that cities can introduce affordable housing relatively easily, and with a reduced impact (visual, number of households/people, parking demands) compared to larger-scale rental apartments that are still difficult to build. There will still be communities that oppose them, though, so planners still face the challenge of public education and collaboration to make these successful.


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