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2007 11 18
City Planners Split Families
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By Rohan Walters B.Arch., B.E.S.
Principal Designer of Spaces By Rohan Inc.

Here is a real story of a real grandmother, mother, grandchildren and a wonderful neighbourhood. It’s a granny flat story.

A recent project of mine involves an aging mother and her caring daughter. The daughter has a family home with her husband and two children in downtown Toronto. Their lot can accommodate a three-car garage with lane access as-of-right. The daughter would like to have her mother live with the family on the same lot in a wheelchair friendly granny flat. The mother has a degenerative mobility condition that is worsening.

The cost of a 540 square foot granny flat that is wheelchair friendly and also accommodates one car parking, is approximately $50,000 - $70,000. In contrast, adapting the existing house to be wheelchair accessible is very expensive. The equipment cost alone -- the exterior elevator from sidewalk to 1st floor and interior wheelchair lift on the interior stair -- NOT including design, structural or labour, will be $40,000 to $50,000. The complete renovation will cost $150,000, $250,000 plus. I know this because I'm doing another house for another aging couple that is doing exactly this. Compare this to the yearly cost for a nursing home which is approximately $40,000 to $90,000, and will likely not be nearby. The cost savings and convenience of having a granny flat is self-evident.

My point is this. The owners received approval from public works, ambulance, fire department and the building department for this granny flat on a lane. Planning was the only agency in our city not to approve the granny flat.

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Municipal Planning policy seemingly contradicts the Ministry of Housing policy alluded to in the new Ontario Building Code:
“Ontario is moving forward with a new Building Code. The 2006 Building Code will:
1. Facilitate the building of small care homes
2. Make constructing small residential buildings easier
3. Contain a new format that allows more creativity in building design while maintaining public safety

The new Building Code also encourages the construction of small care homes by increasing flexibility in the design of such facilities. These changes will make it easier and more cost-effective to build a new small care home or to create one by converting an existing building, and they will help seniors, other Ontarians requiring attendant care, and people who have a developmental disability living in small group settings to remain near their families. http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/userfiles/HTML/nts_1_27485_1.html “One of the important lines here is "... and people who have a developmental disability living in small group settings to remain in their neighbourhood and close to their families."

In order to contest the present city positions the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) the only avenue. The OMB is expensive. Therefore, only the privileged few can attempt to legally over turn city planning policy at this time. Furthermore, such litigation is on a site-by-site basis. In other words, even if there is a victory for a granny flat or other alternative site architecture, the decision does not set precedent for other sites. This is not an acceptable option for the average citizen.

So, when the Committee of Adjustment turns down a granny flat or other rear yard alternatives, how is that refusal worded?

The usual city-planning refrain for refusal is the granny flat concept is not acceptable according to the Official Plan, that city planning thinks the granny flat (a.k.a. house behind a house) is not in keeping with the present development of the area.

In reality this neighbourhood has children using the lane as a real playground. There is an unofficial studio lane flat - read illegal - down further on the lane. There are all sorts of non-garage functions happening within and attached to many of the nearby garages, etc.

In this proposal the granny flat is NOT severed from the main lot. Water and sewer through the main house will service the flat. The flat's garbage pick up will be part of the existing house's street pickup program. The flat will be sprinklered. The flat is accessible from the street for fire and ambulance through existing side yard access.

So, one could infer that planning would prefer a converted dwelling unit with many multiple units beside a single-family home. The reality is in order to make "small care (nursing) home" financially viable the building must have many units. That is what exists now. Hence the annual assisted care cost of $40,000 to $90,000 per year per resident depending on the size of the nursing home and the level of care the resident requires.

The "Official Plan" is supposed to have neighbourhood secondary plans as a clarifying instrument. Planning has no secondary plan for this neighborhood. This secondary plan is supposed to address specific community trends and policy. In fact planning has no secondary plans for the vast majority of neighbourhoods in this city. This is fundamentally wrong and must not continue. Part of the result of planning negligence--not having secondary plans, is an ever increasing level of dissatisfaction and an increase in planning litigation from developers and citizens. City planning is probably spending more time and money in litigation rather than actual planning. And those who can afford to litigate or who are pissed off enough are doing so.

Most of us are or will have to care for someone whose abilities and mobility are in decline. If by having alternative site architecture and planning we can make our collective lives happier, healthier and financially easier, then we must alter our city planning policy. Granny flats and lane housing are a beginning.

Designers, architects, other agencies have solutions available if city planning would only give alternate solutions a chance. By not allowing granny flats and other living units within the existing fabric of our communities, the depth and care in our communities is fundamentally undermined by a planning policy that does not recognize the impending financial nightmare and social instability it's policies may be contributing to.

[email this story] Posted by Rohan Walters on 11/18 at 03:24 PM

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