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Beach Triangle Residents Association

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The Beach Triangle Residents Association, Toronto, Ontario

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Gentle Infill

By Bill Hurst

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In Viet Nam there are many, many so-called skinny houses. These are from 12 to 15 feet wide and 4 to 5 storeys in height. They are multi-generational. On the ground level is a shop run by the elder(s) in the family assisted by other family members. On the second level are the middle aged parents. The third level houses young families. On the top level is the family shrine to the revered ancestors.

In Canada, multi generational housing was more common when I was growing up. Our neighbours had the paternal grandfather living with them as well as an Aunt. My maternal grandfather lived with my Aunt. My wife’s grandmother lived with her family. There were no formal suites or apartments within the houses. My grandmother lived in her own home until she was 100 years old (She lived until 107.) Mrs. Robertson lived upstairs and looked after her in her ‘old age’. I have built a ‘Mrs. Robertson’ apartment in my basement for our ‘old age’. In the meantime I have great young people as tenants.

Often the accommodation was made possible by the existing older homes, usually two or three storey houses, that were large enough to give some separation and privacy between generations but also places to gather. Basement apartments were uncommon. Sometimes an addition, perhaps over a little-used sunroom or garage, created additional living space,

As I see it, there are at least two drivers of change in our communities. People are living longer and in reasonably good health. Younger people are living with their parents into their 30’s and 40’s due to many factors – lack of a full time job, lack of affordable housing nearby, and sometimes marriage breakdown.

Articles in the real estate section of our newspapers point to the growing popularity of multi-unit dwellings. Young couples without big incomes buy houses (with parent’s financial assistance), live in one part and rent out the remainder, with the goal of expanding into the larger house as they can afford it. Of course the reverse can also be practical – older couples or singles who wish to remain in their homes can downsize within and create income at a time in their lives when they need it.

The above scenarios make for a balanced and healthy neighbourhood. It is not for everyone. It requires qualities of flexibility, tolerance and imagination to make it work. The Beach Triangle has this balanced, healthy community.

In Vancouver, laneway housing (a renovated garage or small freestanding unit) has become popular and is encouraged by the local planning departments. Laneway housing generally works well when you have deep lots and a garage is located close to a rear lane. Laneway housing is small units, usually small lofts in a bachelor or one bedroom configuration, often with open plan organization and 400-600 square feet. This housing has the following advantages: income for the homeowner, a place nearby for relatives or caregivers, or a place in the community where young people can start out.

There has been resistance to this type of housing in Toronto. Why? The reasons given are that the minor intensification pulls down property values, delivery of mail is not acceptable to Canada Post, and the unit requires a street frontage for connection of services such as gas, hydro, water and sewage.

It is my strong feeling that renovating a 'not so great' garage into a chic laneway loft (with rental income) can only improve property values and by extension the look and quality of lanes. The intensification is no more than adding a basement apartment. Canada Post can be solved by a letter box closer to the street, while this service continues. Bringing in utilities can be accommodated by extending the services already provided to the main dwelling (laneway housing is not normally on its own lot but part of an existing lot). The small footprint will not adversely affect drainage. The unit with a kitchenette and single bathroom has the same impact as a basement apartment on sewer and water systems.

What about concerns re privacy, i.e., overview and casting shadows? These concerns can easily be addressed with restriction of height, minimum distance to neighbouring buildings and appropriate scale (1½ storeys – no monster homes in the backyards).

The accommodation of multi generational housing and alternate forms of low rise infill housing are a gentle way of encouraging healthy communities with minimal impact to adjoining housing. Let’s talk about it.