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Laneway Suites letter for City Council Sept.29, 2020

Our small charitable organization, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), has been following the laneway housing project and engaging with city staff about it for some years. Laneways come under our mandate. Even so, we only found out about the Sept.22 2020 item, PH16.10, at the Toronto Planning and Housing Committee: “Laneway Suites: Fire Access Requirements,” after the fact. So I’m sending this letter to councillors just before Council votes on the item on Sept.30.

The province of Ontario first passed enabling legislation for secondary dwellings, colloquially called “granny flats,” at the back of people’s gardens, in 2003. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. And in the past six months, a lot of grannies have died alone in institutional beds for want of a laneway granny flat, where they could have been so much more easily shielded from covid without all access to family being cut off.

The original Council requirement called for a review of the June 2018 laneway suites bylaw either when 100 permits had been issued or at the 2 year mark, whichever is sooner. The September report said that only 88 permits have been issued in the last two years, with another 24 applications under review. Not very impressive.

Some context: the same report said that “approximately 47,000 residential lots in the City of Toronto abut a public laneway and are zoned to permit a Laneway Suite.” According to Statistics Canada, during that same time period, between 1500 and 2700 residential building permits a month were issued in Toronto.

The main reason why the new bylaw has resulted in so little new housing is that Toronto Buildings, following the advice of Toronto Fire, has ruled out much of central Toronto, where the houses are most likely to be close to transit and small neighbourhood business and social centres, as ineligible. That’s because those houses are either less than one meter apart from their neighbour, or they are more than 45 meters from a fire hydrant.

Perhaps because these rules have caused the bylaw to be so unsuccessful, Toronto Building is now proposing the shave 10 cm off the required gaps between houses, and to add another 45 meters to the length fire hoses can be made to stretch.

The reasoning in the report, for the new 90 centimeter number, is this: “Fire suppression activities involve firefighters wearing cumbersome and bulky personal protective equipment carrying and using hose lines and large manual and automatic tools and 0.9 metres is the minimum width that should be permitted to permit firefighters to allow effective and efficient firefighting operations.”

Two years ago, Toronto Fire Services declared one meter the absolute minimum. When I asked the Fire Prevention Chief the reasoning behind this he said that the fire fighters couldn’t fit through anything less than that.

But firefighters have to fit through doorways, I replied, which in this neighbourhood are between 73 and 83 centimeters wide.

He agreed that firefighters could fit through doorways and out the back to get to a laneway suite. And the Ontario Fire Code gives firefighters the Right of Entry. But the chief said using the main house as access would increase the cost of the already numerous lawsuits for the property damage against Fire Services. So I asked Freedom of Information to send me all records of fire access property damage claims. There were 44 claims over 7 years, ranging from $53 to $3,350, for a total of $44,164.

I asked, what about using the laneways for emergency access? Not possible, said the fire chief. “The laneway has to be as wide as a street or the fire trucks won’t fit.” But fire trucks are 2.9 meters wide. Laneway width: at least 3.6 metres. And in fact, the local fire crew took its biggest truck down our laneway for a test run and didn’t get stuck. But, said the chief, there are often cars parked illegally back there. And if it snows, laneways aren’t plowed. Both true, except in those laneways where city staff already post “no parking in laneway” signs, and where they already plow because garbage trucks pick up the bins at the back of the house lots. (See for example, the laneway east of Shaw Street, north of Dundas).

The fact is, laneways have garages, including many that have been fixed up as workshops or artist studios or social spaces. There may already be many hundreds, or thousands, of laneway suites, some legal and non-conforming, many illegal. City planners told me they don’t have a record of either kind. But front-line fire fighters tell us that when a garage or backyard structure catches fire, they go and put the fire out, getting there any way they can. The city’s fire data says that between 2011 and 2016, there were 214 garage fires: 214, with 0 deaths and 5 injuries (unspecified).

At the February 2020 Building Code Commission hearing about a laneway house (referenced in the Sept.22 report), a Toronto Fire official said the rules were all set out in detail in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Fire Services and Toronto Building, but he wasn’t sure he was allowed to reveal the contents. The contents, it turned out, were just a repeat of the rules that everyone knew about already. The city has a vast collection of fire incident data (posted on Open Data), so I asked, through Freedom of Information, to see any analyses of the data that supported the MOU. The first response I got was just a copy of the MOU again, and when I persisted in asking for the data analyses that backed up the MOU, there was a 75-day silence. Finally the answer came: “Staff has advised that despite a thorough search, they were unable to locate any….responsive records related to your request. Access therefore, cannot be granted as the records do not exist.” (Really.)

When the bylaw was passed in 2018, it seemed like here was the key to letting older people “age-in-place,” letting families support relatives with special needs, and allowing low-income renters to continue living in their neighbourhoods even though houses have become unaffordable for many.

That’s what still needs to happen. But how to get there?

(1) Back up the rules with real-world data. For example: the fire chief says that a less-than-90-cm walkway won’t allow EMS stretchers to get through. But the Stryker stretchers used by the city are only 59 cm wide. Besides, our paramedic friends say that if there’s a laneway call, they would drive down the laneway anyway. All that real-world evidence needs to be addressed.

(2) The trove of city fire data is also real-world. Require Fire management to back up their rules with evidence from their records. (They have some spare time to search their data. In 2013, the city hired a consultant to do a service efficiency review of Toronto Fire and EMS. It’s a remarkable study. They found that in the sample year of 2011: - 58% of all responses by the fire service were to medical calls, 4% were to alarms, and only 1.4% were to fires. For the fire station nearest to me, at Dufferin and Dupont, 2011 had a total of 20 fires. There are 3212 fire staff citywide. So there’s time for staff to go over the fire data in detail.)

(3) Take better account of the gains in safety when more of the city’s rag-tag laneway garages are replaced by new buildings. Of the fire deaths analyzed in the 2013 service efficiency report of TFS, only one of the 39 people who died was in a building constructed more recently than 2003.

(4) Take the real-world conversation back into the neighbourhoods. Firefighters are already using their non-emergency time to do practice runs. Make some of that practice public and include the residents. Schedule some show-and-tell laneway fire drills (using volunteer houses), so people in the neighbourhood can see for themselves what the obstacles are to putting out a fire. Then neighbours can lobby their city councillors to direct funding to – for example – laneway snow clearance, parking enforcement, additional fire hydrants, and smaller fire trucks.

The Sept.22 Laneway Suites report gives the primary reason for expanding housing permits as this: “The current experience with COVID-19 has also reinforced the important role of the construction and renovation industries in the economic health of the city.”

True. But before anything else, the reason is to use our civic treasure of extra space to make street-level housing available for many more people, including those who are currently warehoused in large long-term-care institutions.

Councillors, please send this item back to the Housing committee and ask them to expand the opportunities for new housing.

Jutta Mason (CELOS)

Content last modified on September 30, 2020, at 02:03 AM EST