*** UPDATE: JULY 6, 2022 – GARDEN SUITES ARE NOW LEGAL TO BUILD IN TORONTO – READ MORE ***
Given their potential for drastically expanding Toronto’s housing market and allowing homeowners to build equity, we are very excited to announce that Toronto’s city council has recently passed a motion to legalize garden suites! However, it isn’t quite legal to build one of the units yet, nor is the battle over: the garden suite proposal must still pass through the Ontario Land Tribunal. Additionally, an appeal filed by opposing neighbourhood associations will likely be processed before the units become fully legal, adding another delay to the process.
Whether you’re a homeowner excited to build a garden suite of your own or a curious Torontonian, we know that the process has been confusing and difficult to follow. That’s why we’ll be walking you through the history of garden suites in Toronto, recent legalization efforts, community groups’ appeals, and our predictions for garden suites in Toronto’s near future.
History of Garden Suites in Toronto
What is a Garden Suite?
Garden suites are detached units built on a property lot that already has a house on it. Unlike laneway houses which must be built alongside a laneway, garden suites can be located anywhere on a property—whether you’d like to build one in your backyard or front yard, you’re free to do so as long as there is space! These units (which are also known as granny flats, garden houses, backyard houses, and coach houses) are a great way to increase Toronto’s access to relatively affordable housing while still encouraging community connections. They also allow current homeowners to increase the value of their property and access rental income, potentially providing mortgage relief. For young couples that still live with their parents, garden suites can even be a way to maintain privacy without having to move out.
When were the first garden suites built in Toronto?
Before the recent legalization efforts, Toronto did not allow multiple detached homes on a single property. Instead, multiple units had to be contained within a single detached house, a semi-detached house, or a townhouse. But that doesn’t mean that garden suites are completely new to the city.
In the late 19th- and early 20th-century, several property lots in the city featured multiple standalone residential units. Though they weren’t necessarily common, these extra units were not yet illegal: it was only once zoning laws were updated post-WWII (under the assumption that each property lot contained only one standalone home) that garden homes became illegal.
What was the purpose of a garden suite back then?
Early garden suites, or coach houses as they were more commonly called at the time, were originally used to store wealthy families’ horses and carriages. Many also included living chambers for servants and their family members on an upper floor. As a result, these coach houses generally included many of the features that you’d expect to find in a house. Though coach houses were not luxurious, they still contained lodging essentials.
Community Response to Garden Suite Legalization Efforts
Toronto’s community response to garden house legalization efforts has been mixed. Although some residents celebrate the project as a way to diversify the city’s dwellings and improve the housing market, others have major concerns about garden suites’ implementation. Throughout the legalization process, community groups have allowed individual residents to band together and amplify their voices. Common complaints about garden suites typically include concern for the tree population (as trees would likely be cut down to make room for garden suites) and worries that neighbourhoods will become overcrowded.
Before the garden suite legalization motion was passed in city hall, the most prominent complaint came from the Federation of North Toronto Residents’ Associations (FoNTRA), a group of over 30 residents’ associations. FoNTRA released a letter to the City of Toronto’s City Planning Division on December 7, 2021 that outlined the Federation’s concerns about garden suites and their recommendations to improve the motion that was circulating through city hall. Although they praised garden suites as “a feasible option for additional housing,” they emphasized the importance of “[preserving] the green space system that exists in the neighbourhoods … [and] not negatively [impacting] adjacent neighbours, and the neighbourhood character.” In order to achieve what they believe to be a sustainable, respectable implementation, FoNTRA issued a series of recommended changes including:
- Disallowing “multi tenant building types” in the Garden Suites bylaw until further research could be conducted
- Strengthening clauses that protect trees and ensuring that trees with a diameter under 20cm would also receive protection
- Adding minimum lot size requirements to the Garden Suite bylaw and ensuring that all additional buildings meet current Ontario Building Code and Fire Code access requirement
- Capping garden suites at 2 storeys
- Ensuring that garden suites align with the Ontario Building Code’s minimum dwelling and room size requirements
- Preventing garden suites from being built on townhouse properties (excluding townhouses at the end of their respective row)
- Mandating a minimum distance of 7.5 metres between any given property’s primary house and its garden suite
- Ensuring that the existing tree canopy on each lot is preserved. If there are no canopy trees on the lot, requiring them to be planted as a condition of building a garden home
- Adding landscape inspections to the list of required building inspections in order to minimize the risk of damaging Toronto’s green space
Since Toronto’s garden suite legalization efforts began during the pandemic, meetings between community groups and city planning officials generally took place virtually. Most prominently, the Planning and Housing Committee meetings allowed resident groups to meet with City Planning staff and voice any concerns. The City of Toronto also released a survey that encouraged individual residents to provide feedback about the proposed garden suite legalization.
In a report on Toronto’s garden house legalization efforts released on June 14, 2021, the City of Toronto summarised their community interaction to date which included a list of the most common feedback and concerns. They noted that many people were interested in learning what exactly constitutes a garden suite, which lots would be eligible to build garden suites on, how many people would be able to inhabit a garden suite, how parking would work in busier locations, and other logistical concerns. Although the report said that many Torontonians were interested in garden houses as an avenue for additional housing in the city, there were also major concerns about property taxes, neighbours not being consulted during the building process, the possibility of garden suites being used for short-term rentals, and a lack of parking availability. The report also detailed concerns for the city’s trees (many of which would inevitably be cut down to construct garden suites), neighbourhood character, overall safety, and increased population density.
Legalization of Garden Suites in Toronto
Of course, the aforementioned report is just one step in the long process of legalizing garden suites within Toronto. The overall project is a part of the city’s Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods (EHON) Program, which was proposed in July 2020 and aims to build more so-called “Missing Middle” dwellings that range from “duplexes to low-rise walk-up apartments” and provide medium population density. But it wasn’t until November 2020 that the government began to significantly work towards legalizing garden suites, noting in a report that City Planning officials would undergo consultations in early 2021 and report back to the Planning and Housing Committee by the end of June 2021.
After a lengthy consultation process with community members, resident associations, professionals, and urban planners, the City of Toronto passed the motion to legalize garden suites on February 2, 2022. In response to the most common community concerns, healthy by-law protected trees cannot be removed in order to build a garden suite. Likewise, garden suites building proposals are subject to strict safety requirements and must adhere to the Ontario Building Code.
Local Community Groups Appeal Legalization
Although the motion to legalize Toronto garden suites has been passed through city hall, the battle is not quite over. In addition to still having to pass through the Ontario Land Tribunal before becoming a law, a number of community groups have appealed the legalization, resulting in lengthy hearing processes and signalling disagreement within the community.
On February 15, 2022—just days after the garden suite motion was passed—the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association attended the City of Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee meeting. In a press release on their website, the Association explains that they used this meeting to convey their grievances with the current motion. According to the group, Long Branch already has “the full range” of housing types that are required, making the legalization of garden suites unnecessary. They also complain that local schools are already over capacity and current residents must send their children to schools outside of the district yet TDSB has no plans to expand the region’s schools, a precarious balancing act that is already toppling and will be further strained by the addition of new families. Rather than building garden suites, the Association calls upon the city to implement additional commercial space so that their streets are “more inviting to walk and shop,” ultimately fostering a stronger sense of community between existing residents. They also note that they felt alienated during the City’s virtual consultation meetings since “it is easier to cut a video or audio feed to stop someone from speaking.”
Although the meeting did not have a significant impact on official policy, the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association banded together with 6 other residents’ associations—the Cliffcrest Scarborough Village SQW Residents Association (Scarborough district), Don Mills Residents Inc. (North York district), South Armour Heights Residents’ Association (North York district), Bedford-Wanless Ratepayers Association (North York district), Swansea Area Ratepayers’ Association (Toronto and East York district), and the Confederation of Resident and Ratepayer Associations in Toronto—to form the Alliance of Toronto Residents’ Associations and file an official appeal of the garden suites motion in early March 2022. While the Alliance of Toronto Residents’ Associations claims that they are not against garden suites being legalized in the city, they argue that the city overstepped Ontario’s requests for expanding housing options, “ignored other municipalities’ experiences,” and ultimately created policies that prioritise “developers and speculators [rather than] the needs of tenants and homeowners.”
On its Building Better Neighbourhoods website, the Alliance of Toronto Residents’ Associations lays out its grievances and requests. The group complains that the city’s current garden suite regulations do not account for neighbourhood differences, were developed without adequate community consultation and passed without sufficient notice to residents, have expanded beyond Ontario’s request by permitting garden suites on duplex, multiplex, and low-rise apartment properties, and encourage renovictions, ultimately posing a threat to current tenants. According to the group, current garden suites allow the units to be too tall, large, or close to neighbour’s houses. They also take issue with the fact that neighbours are not consulted during the building process, nor are they able to veto local garden suite applications. Additionally, the group notes that the city’s proposed guidelines allow residents to cut down trees that are not protected by by-laws in order to build garden suites, resulting in less green space within the city. Finally, they mention the fact that although garden suites have been proposed as affordable housing solutions, the typical garden suite rental cost is close to market rates.
As a solution to these issues, the Alliance of Toronto’s Residents Associations has several requests: for garden suites to be relatively small structures that do not include basements, for the city to implement population density-related guidelines that protect the environment, for greater tree, tree canopy, and greenspace protection, for residents to receive a bulletin that explains the garden suite-related changes in simple language, and ultimately for “regulations to respond to the needs of tenants and homeowners versus developers and speculators.”
Although the City of Toronto has declined to comment publicly on the garden suite appeal since it is a legal matter, the provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s Director of Communications, Zoe Knowles, told Storeys that municipalities “have flexibility in how they adopt ARU official plan policies and zoning by-law provisions and may tailor the application of provincial policy and legislation for ARUs to fit local circumstances”—a point that directly undermines Building Better Neighbourhoods’ claims that the city has overstepped provincial guidelines by failing to diversify the regulations based on neighbourhood. Though municipal governments can create localised guidelines, they are not required to. Regardless, the appeal process will inevitably delay the construction of garden suites within the city as the complaint must now pass through the Ontario Land Tribunal—a process that may take 6-8 months.
Making a Comeback: Will Garden Suites be Legalized Again?
Even though City Council has approved the garden suite motion, the official by-law is still being considered by the Ontario Land Tribunal. The Alliance of Toronto Residents’ Associations’ appeal will almost certainly cause the process to take even longer, posing a challenge for those who wish to build a unit on their property. Torontonians can also expect amendments to be made to the garden house by-laws, especially in light of the appeal. Similar adjustments will likely be made to laneway suite by-laws.
If you’re interested in building a backyard house in Toronto, it can be disheartening to see so many delays. Yet despite the challenges, we predict that the first 200+ garden suite construction permits will be issued within the first three years of legalization, signalling a light at the end of the tunnel for prospective owners. Although no one likes to deal with unexpected delays, you can use this extra time to plan your dream garden home’s layout. Looking for some inspiration? Check out our samples! For more information on the building process, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com.