Two years ago, Bill Wilson made the decision to move back to Toronto from London, Ont. He’d lost his wife and his daughter within the span of just a few months, and his son, Rod, had a home in the city.
“I had nobody there left, and my health was to the point that I thought I’d better make a move. I don’t want my son travelling all the way to London to see me in the hospital or anything,” said Wilson, who was 89 at the time.
“So I phoned [Rod] up and I said, ‘Rod, I think it’s time I came home.’ And he said, ‘OK, it’s about time.'”
Wilson moved into a two-floor coach house in the backyard of his son’s property. But within a year, he was forced to leave.
“The city said, ‘You can’t have a separate living space on your property unless it’s … backing onto a public laneway,” said Rod Wilson.
In 2018, the city amended its zoning bylaw to allow for laneway suites — detached homes that back onto a laneway. But under current rules, coach houses — also known as garden suites or backyard houses — are not legally permitted for residential use in Toronto.
In a city that’s in dire need of more rental housing stock —with low vacancy rates and ballooning prices — advocates say it’s time Toronto allowed coach houses like Wilson’s for residential use.
In July, the city passed a motion to expand housing options in the city. While coach houses are included in its list, it’s unclear how long the consultation process will take and whether there will be enough support to move ahead to formally allow residential coach houses in Toronto.
‘It was just perfect’
Rod Wilson bought the property on Kingston Road near Woodbine Avenue in 1998, and has since rented out the coach house in the backyard to artists and musicians.
Prior to his father moving in, he said he’d made small modifications to the coach house, but it already had electricity, water, a bathroom and a kitchenette before he bought the property.
Wilson said a survey traces the coach house back to the 1920s. He believes it was once used as a barn for the adjacent home. It’s now a two-floor, one-bathroom unit with a kitchen.
“It’s not something that I threw up — a little 12-by-12 shed and put a plug in there with a hot plate and a kettle. It’s an actual living space,” said Wilson, who moved his father in the fall of 2018.
Describing the moment he first saw it, Bill Wilson said, “He opened the door and he said, ‘This is yours.’ And I just took a look and just fell in love with it. It was just just perfect.”
Rod Wilson said a complaint from a new neighbour — who had bought an adjacent property — prompted a visit from a city inspector, who informed Wilson that under the city’s rules, his coach house couldn’t be used for residential purposes. Wilson said it was the first he’d heard of that.
“Because it had been here for so long, I thought it would have been grandfathered in as an existing building that has been here,” said Wilson.
Wilson then set out to try to modify the space to make it legal. He said he worked with a drafting company and a lawyer and took the matter to the city. He said he was told the matter had to go to the Committee of Adjustment, but his application was denied at a September 2019 meeting.
“We had 23 letters of support from surrounding neighbours. And one of the gentlemen on the committee said, ‘It wouldn’t matter if you had the support of the whole city. It’s still illegal,'” said Wilson.
So why aren’t coach houses permitted as residential living spaces in Toronto? According to the city’s chief planner, though they exist throughout the city, they were never included in formal zoning laws.
“The post-war city — the inner suburbs of the city, parts of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough — they grew up around the concept of one building, one lot,” said Gregg Lintern.
“Those kinds of rules were put in place in the zoning bylaw over a long period of time.”
Lintern said approximately 10 years ago, the issue was brought before council, but said there wasn’t an appetite for change within neighbourhoods, and there were outstanding questions about infrastructure and safety.
But things have changed since then — most notably, the housing market. Last month, city council passed a motion to explore opportunities for new housing options in the city.
The motion stems from the idea of the “missing middle” — that is, the lack of housing that falls somewhere between large detached houses and small high-rise condos in the city.
“The first priority actually is to look at garden suites or coach houses,” said Lintern.
Evolving city needs
Other cities have moved more quickly.
“Windsor already allows it, Hamilton, Ottawa. They’re way ahead of Toronto in this respect, and I hope we can catch up to them soon,” said Sean Galbraith, an urban planner.
Galbraith welcomes the city’s plan to look at exploring more housing options like coach houses. He believes over time, it could have an impact on rental stock.
He noted the advantage of coach houses in that you can tap into existing spaces rather than finding new ones.
“I think coach houses could have a fairly significant impact in the availability of housing across the city,” he said.
“If only because there are a lot of lots that have large backyards big enough to hold … a small detached cottage. And far in excess of, for example, the laneway suites program, where there are only so many lanes,” he said.
“We need more rental housing … We need as much of it as we can get in as many forms and types as we can get.”
Coun. Brad Bradford — who represents Ward 19, Beaches-East York, where Wilson’s property is located — said in a city that’s in a housing crisis, every option counts.
“I’m pushing for coach houses to be allowed — with the right conditions — just like the debate we had with laneway houses a few years ago, too,” he said.
“I feel for everything [Rod Wilson] and his father have gone through on this issue,” Bradford said. “It’s the kind of situation which nobody wants to be in, caught in the space between doing something very benign and the rules simply not being in place to make it possible.”
Coach house to basement
Rod Wilson’s father, who is now 91, moved into the basement of the house on the property after his son was forced to evict his tenant of 17 years.
Bill Wilson said though he’s happy to have a home, it’s just not the same as the space he fell in love with upon arrival.
“I just take every day as it comes, accept things the way they are, not the way I would like to have them,” he said.
His son hopes the city moves more quickly to allow properties like his to be permitted as housing options.
“The city is begging for housing. And here they are shutting us down.”