Toronto city council was supposed to end the absurd overregulation of laneway housing starting this week. It’s unclear councillors will do any such thing, writes Edward Keenan.
Published in the Toronto Star
Fri., May 4, 2018
By Edward Keenan
What do caricature art and laneway housing have in common?
Both can be cute. Neither is likely to be the solution to any grand-scale problem. Both seem like fine and good things to have around.
And both have been so severely, absurdly overregulated by Toronto’s city council that they have been virtually illegal to create on the streets of Toronto. That was supposed to change, in both cases, starting this week.
In the case of laneway housing, however, our elected officials look like they’re gonna council the whole thing up.
Faced with a new policy that would set rules for homeowners to relatively easily build rental units on laneways on their property, Toronto and East York Community Council sent it back for more study. It was almost a caricature of their micromanaging and overregulating impulses.
The same impulses that led them to create rules requiring any artist who wants to sell drawings in the street to carry $2 million in liability insurance and pay $468 per year for permits and stay in one of 26 designated zones. As if drawing people with exaggerated noses and chins was a hazard to be contained and requiring forbidding barriers to entry.
As reported by the Star earlier this week, this has resulted in there being exactly zero artists carrying such permits or working on the streets of Toronto. So on May 4, the licensing committee was considering a motion to eliminate most of those barriers to again encourage the broad-strokes satirical arts to take to the sidewalks.
You’d have thought the visibility of that agenda item coming up might have served as a bit of a cautionary note to those considering the laneway item on May 2.
The “Changing Lanes” report from the city’s planning department proposed to allow construction of laneway unit “secondary suites” available for use by homeowners or for rent. They would not be severable as separate properties — like basement apartments they would be attached legally and in the provision of services and utilities to the existing homes. Specific design guidelines dictate height, distance from the lane, angles of rooflines, window and balcony placement, and so on.
The idea is that given these rules — developed over a year of study and consultation — people could go ahead and replace their garage with a rental home “as of right.” That is, they would be able to do it with a simple building permit, rather than needing to go through the traditional complicated and expensive bureaucratic development process.
This is good stuff. Everyone said so. Even those councillors who clearly thought that this stuff might be too good.
This is the tradition on city council. When you are in the process of tossing a great idea into a deep hole and shovelling dirt onto it, you typically do so while making a speech about how you came to praise the idea, not to bury it.
And so it was with Councillor Joe Mihevc, who said he’d move his own aged parents into a laneway house while he moved a big motion delaying any plan until staff could “reconsider” and do more study and perhaps — only perhaps, you understand! — make it a lot more complicated. He was joined by most of the rest of council’s downtown left-wing, who typically fancy themselves city builders.
They wonder why this proposal to do one thing cannot also simultaneously solve every other problem in the city. And they also wonder about ensuring it doesn’t actually result in any change of any kind to their neighbourhoods.
So they want to see about requiring anyone who builds one of these homes to offer it permanently at below-market rent, so as to ensure it is available to the poor. They want to see about requiring more stringent rules for these landlords than exist for other landlords, so as to protect tenants. They want to see about maybe making these builders go through the traditional zoning and committee of adjustment processes, so as to defeat the entire purpose of the plan.
Councillor Mary Fragedakis even complained about the possible loss of minimum parking space requirements. And then, dear reader, my head exploded.
In the end, only Ana Bailao, Mary-Margaret McMahon, Gord Perks, and Lucy Troisi resisted the calls to radically de-simplify the simplification plan. They lost.
“Better to go a little stricter at the beginning and loosen up later,” said Mihevc. He said this in a city that has, over the past decade, made a complicated administrative nightmare or a controversial clownshow out of virtually every single thing it has said it wants to encourage.
He said this in a city where, on Friday, a committee was reckoning with the fact that they made street caricature art extinct through the application of their brand of good-intentioned encouragement. At least councillors managed not to botch that up — approving the liberation of caricature rules without debate.
These downtown council progressives claim they will revisit and approve laneway housing guidelines before the end of this term. They love it, they say! Let’s watch and see if they can, for once, manage not to love it to death.