How do you find a detached home in Toronto for under $500,000 dollars? Anyone in real estate will tell you that’s nearly impossible these days. But the one exception to that rule is laneway housing, which is springing up across backyards in our city and still comes in under that price tag.
Still in its infancy, the laneway trend took off in 2018, when the City of Toronto changed bylaws to allow home owners in most older parts of Toronto and East York to build self-contained residential units in rear yards next to a laneway. The new policy has meant that homeowners who want to build a laneway dwelling on their properties are no longer forced to go through long, contentious consultations with neighbours, city officials and other stakeholders. Now the process is streamlined, and building a laneway house is more like any other construction project in the city: if you get a building permit, you’re good to go. So far, Toronto has approved 52 building permits for laneway suites, with over 50 more under review.
New companies have popped up to serve the emerging market, and some of them have either completed construction on their first builds or are very near completion. One such company, Laneway Home Building Experts (LHBE), is excited about the future and even more excited to see their first builds coming to fruition.
One of the first projectsLHBE landed was a 700-square-foot laneway house behind a family-owned home on Clinton Street. Jack Gelbloom and Jessica Goldstein, a couple now enjoying their retirement, are just weeks away from being the proud owners of one of the first crop of laneway houses to be completed in Toronto after the bylaw changes in 2018.
Jack and Jessica have owned their 3+ bedroom home in Seaton Village for over 25 years. But it wasn’t their idea to build a laneway house in their backyard. It was the brainchild of Lee Gelbloom, their30-year-old daughter. Lee had returned home to live with her parents after experiencing first-hand the difficulties of the Toronto rental market.
According to Lee, “Toronto hasn’t been the best for living situations. I’ve lived in many different apartments over the last few years. At the last place I rented, before I even moved in, the landlord said, ‘We’re raising the rent by $900.’ I went back to live with my parents because of the lack of decent, affordable housing options in this city.”
After visiting Lee in various small, overpriced basement apartments—some with bed bugs, others with obvious fire hazards and code violations—parents Jack and Jessica began to appreciate first-hand the challenges faced in this city by young people like their daughter who are trying to make it on their own.
As mother Jessica says, “It was never my dream when I was young to live in my parents’ backyard. But it was much easier for us when we were Lee’s age to find decent places to live in Toronto. The situation now is completely different.”
Instead of homesteading,entrepreneurial millennials like Lee are approaching their urban home-owning parents with the idea of laneway housing as a solution to many problems at the same time. “At first, I considered asking my parents if I could build a tiny house and put it in their backyard. But when the city changed the bylaws, I saw the opportunity to do something much better than that.”
Lee did the research first to make sure her parents’ property fit Toronto’s guidelines for laneway housing. “I called a lot of places. I talked to a lot of people. The first time I mentioned the idea of a laneway house to my parents, they were not into it. But it didn’t take me too long to convince them.”
“It took overnight. It was that fast,” her mother, Jessica,adds.
Together, father, mother and daughter interviewed various companies and in the end chose LHBE to conduct the custom build. Now, the bespoke 700-square-foot home is nearing completion, and Lee expects to move out of her parent’s home, cross the backyard and reside in their laneway home in about three weeks time.
“It’s a win-win situation,” says her father, Jack. “Let’s face it. We like to know where our daughter is and that she’s safe, but my wife and I also want our privacy back.”
Jack and Jessica fronted all the costs for the one-bedroom, two-storey build, and Lee has agreed to pay rent to her parents once she moves in. “Basically, Lee’s rent money will cover the mortgage,” says Jack. “We’re not out to make money from our daughter.”As for the home itself, it’s a bespoke, one-bedroom home that includes bathrooms on both floors and a studio space on the main floor. Butcher block counter tops, custom shelving and a subway tiled backsplash.
According to Meridian, the third-largest credit union in Canada, if this family had decided to rent their laneway home at market value from the outset, they would be cash-positive from month one and the build would be paid for in 12 years. The house has been built with the future in mind.“If Lee decides to move out,” Jessica says, “I don’t think it would be difficult to rent the laneway home. We could even keep the downstairs studio for ourselves and rent out the upstairs portion, which functions as its own separate apartment.”
As for Lee, she’s excited about moving out–if not moving far–from her parents’ house. “I’ve been constantly moving–from my parents’ place to apartments to house-sits–for five or six years. It’s been years of complete instability. Now I’ll have my own space that I can design. I want a cellar, and a place to make sourdough bread. Having a space that I can call my own will remove a lot of anxiety.”
Jack and Jessica agree with that.
As for LBHE, after just 18 months in business, developer Andrew Fishman is feeling more confident than ever in the burgeoning business of laneway homes. “We’re booming. We’ve signed more contracts over the past month and will be breaking ground in late summer and early fall of this year. Already we are also slotting projects for the 2021 Calendar year. We areconstantly taking calls from families who want to know if there’s a laneway solution for them. There’s a ton of buzz from referrals, because neighbours actually do talk to each other in this city. We’re thrilled to be making a positive contribute to the urban community and of building homes we’ll walk by decades from now and say, ‘We built that. And we’re proud of it.’”