The urban pioneers: Are city streets becoming private homes?

Written by by Aaron B. Rochon, CNN

The city of Toronto is known for its truly charming laneway houses, raised on stilts and tucked into ravines near the downtown core.

Until now. In a shock move to those who have long known these homes as a precious piece of Toronto laneway real estate, the city wants to designate even more of them as city properties.

Earlier this year, the city council adopted a revised L&B program, allowing homeowners to sign long-term leases on their laneway homes for a nominal $100 per year.

Taken as a whole, such leases could be worth as much as $1 million each to the owners, who would keep the homes as their main residence, while allowing them access to amenities like parks, trails and public transit.

“It’s like someone just wants to own me,” said Kathleen Phillips, who owns five laneway houses in the city.

She owns three of the homes, which she bought for a combined total of about $220,000 in the 1960s, and a large plot of land nearby that she has built onto.

“It would probably be really scary, because one thing I don’t want to do is for the city to just rezone it and then I’d get up here one day and I couldn’t get back down.”

To get the revenue, certain amenities must be paid into a preservation fund set up under the existing L&B program. The amount received from these accounts would then be shared with the neighbours, meaning each house would have to contribute to offset the value of giving up their laneway home.

Would it work?

Phillips says she’s inclined to support her neighbors who would have to decide how much to pay into the preservation fund.

“I do think it’s really important that they give a little back,” she said. “I think it’s just as if you were buying a house for the backyard; you’d have to give a little back.”

Greg Greenberg, who lives just one stone’s throw from Phillips in the Rosedale Park neighbourhood, agrees.

“It seems like a really great opportunity for a lot of people who are already really lucky enough to live on really nice land,” he said.

After having studied the prospect in depth for a recent documentary, Robert Brubaker, who lives in Toronto, said he didn’t understand how the program could affect the character of his neighborhood.

“You couldn’t do this anywhere else,” he said. “(People are) proud of the laneway house and probably resent the city trying to take it away.”

A couple of the main objections he’s heard from neighbours — like his friend Jeff Liggett, who lives in Kensington Market — are safety, noise and traffic.

Liggett used to live in a lane house, which he received via a group bidding auction held by the city, until he and his wife saw other house prices creep up.

“I don’t want to cause problems, I don’t want to hold up traffic, but I do know it’s a hard life; it’s a lonely life.”

Phillips and Brubaker say their neighbours, who live 10 to 15 blocks away, have been generally receptive to the new arrangements. The handful who have expressed opposition feel like they’re somehow being punished for making their homes livable.

“I feel a bit like we’re letting the city take over our lives and we’re being mean by not cooperating,” said Liggett.

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