Toronto city council recently opened the door to making it easier for residents to build secondary suites in their homes, just so long as basement or attic apartment doesn’t include a front entrance.
In approving zoning changes for secondary suites late last month, council rejected a move by a councillor that would have let homeowners build second front entrances “as of right” at their detached homes and semis to accommodate renters in secondary units. The motion would have meant homeowners wouldn’t need to seek a committee of adjustment variance for the entrance, a process that often means delays.
This was shot down primarily because the majority of council supported the view that these changes would impact the “character” or “esthetic” of streets in certain parts of the city.
It’s an argument one expert says prioritizes class concerns over the dignity of renters.
Sean Galbraith, a private urban planner in Toronto, said for him the issue of front entrances for tenants, as opposed to side or back entrances is “an issue of one’s personal dignity” that shouldn’t take a back seat to concerns about neighbourhood character.
Galbraith went on to say concerns by community members and politicians about front door access and neighbourhood character are driven by a form of “NIMBY-ism” that is backed up by Official Plan provisions that speak to “prevailing character” benchmarks for neighbourhoods.
Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 9, Davenport), who chairs the city’s planning and housing committee and brought forward the motion calling for homeowners to be allowed to build second front entrances, says a huge opportunity was missed by council.
A lot of downtown properties have narrow lots or are semis where it’s difficult to enter from the side or back of the house.
“Some of these (houses) are attached homes where there is no other way sometimes to have people accessing it other than the front entrances,” Bailão said in an interview.
“We know there is an abundance in our neighbourhoods of houses with empty rooms, so there are a lot of people who are overhoused. This (second front door access) is a form of gentle density that could very easily accommodate the thousands of new residents that will be coming to this city,” Bailão added.
Secondary suites are self-contained residential units — typically basement apartments — in detached homes, semis and townhouses.
Toronto was the first municipality in Ontario to bring them in, and that happened in 1999, after the city amalgamated from six municipalities into the megacity it is now, with the old city of Toronto at the core.
Under former rules, houses needed to be more than five years old before a secondary suite could be added (in some parts of downtown Toronto up to 40 years old) but city council’s recent amendment removes these requirements, so even new homes can now have these suites.
The amendment also did away with other requirements including that there be a parking spot for the initial secondary suite in a house.
Rules governing minimum sizes for secondary units and primary dwelling units were also removed in the recent changes adopted by council. And secondary suites are now permitted in all townhouses across the city.
But council balked at Bailão’s idea of two front entrances for homes. Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 15, Don Valley West) put forward the motion seeking to delete Bailão’s plan and Robinson’s motion carried 18-7, which included Mayor John Tory voting with the majority.
“The overall impact of the item as amended is significantly positive and will result in the creation of many more secondary suites without an approval process,” Tory’s spokesperson Lawvin Hadisi said in a statement after the vote.
“The amendment moved by Councillor Robinson will not prevent secondary suites but will only require those applicants seeking a second front entrance on a house to seek approval as is presently the case,” Hadisi added.
Michael Mizzi, director of zoning and committee of adjustment in the city’s planning division, said city council’s zoning bylaw changes will lead to “a lot of opportunities for secondary suited in the suburbs of Toronto” — places such as Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke where there are many houses on larger lots with side and back door entrances.
“So there’s already a built-in mechanism to accommodate a lot of these secondary suites in those areas outside the core,” Mizzi said in an interview.
He pointed out the city believes there are currently between 70,000 to 100,000 secondary suites in the entire city (though it’s unclear how many are approved), with a substantial portion in the old city of Toronto.
Robinson’s office said she was too busy to speak with the Star about her motion blocking two front door entrances.
But Councillor John Filion (Ward 18, Willowdale) who supported Robinson’s motion, said Bailão’s plan was too broad.
“This (motion) came from Councillor Bailão to solve a problem in her area. But instead of making it specific to her area or specific situations, for example when you can’t put a door on the side of a house, she just made an amendment that would have applied to the whole city,” Filion said.
“You don’t do it on a back of the napkin amendment with no notice and no process and no staff recommendations,” Filion said.
Councillor Michael Colle (Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence) said he’s opposed to the idea of second front door access to additional suites because he doesn’t like the idea of builders of new homes changing the character of Toronto neighbourhoods.
“We’re losing the character of our streets. They are building Lego box homes everywhere, including where you would have typical Toronto homes, big and small, that have a certain Toronto look to them,” Colle said.
Colle said, “it’s almost a fashion now that you don’t occupy your whole house,” and he supports the notion of people renting their homes — he’s just not adding second front doors.
Galbraith pointed out rules preventing the creation of front door entrances on detached homes and semis are common across the GTA, so Toronto isn’t alone.
Bailão said it is time to do an analysis of the variances being sought for second front doors so Toronto can get better data on the depth of the issue.
“We need to create a zoning bylaw that addresses … some of the issues the city is facing, which is a very high number of illegal secondary suites, and a high need to have these secondary suites legalized and having residents build more of them,” Bailão said.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent