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Informal settlements are the desire lines of housing

Toronto’s new garden suite (accessory dwelling unit) policies are headed to Planning and Housing Committee this week for approval. If you’d like to leave a supportive comment, you can do that over here by clicking “submit comments” at the top of the page. I just finished doing exactly that.

Given that this is happening, I figured I would share this related article from the New York Times talking about ADUs and informal housing in Los Angeles. I discovered it through this Strong Towns article by Jay Strange. And I love how he refers to informal structures as the “desire paths” of housing.

Desire paths, for those of you who may be unfamiliar, are the naturally formed paths and lines that get created when people just walk where they want to walk. Usually these are the shortest and/or most logical routes and, by definition, they don’t align with any designed paths or walkways.

Jay’s point with informal housing is that it is similarly what people actually want to do, but maybe can’t, usually because of restrictive zoning and/or building codes.

The New York Times gives the example of a family that illegally built an accessory dwelling unit at the back of their house in the 1990s. It was rented to friends and family, and it helped them get through some difficult financial times. But again, it wasn’t lawful.

According to some researchers at UCLA, Los Angeles County is estimated to have some 200,000 informal units. Many are forced into demolition, but many, like the above example, manage to sneak under the radar because lots of other people are building them and nobody in the community wants to disrupt things.

Of course, Los Angeles now allows backyard cottages. And so what was once illegal is now not only permitted, but encouraged. Funny, isn’t it? I don’t know if it was the “desire housing” that ultimately made it happen. But it is clear that many people wanted it and they were voting with their actions.

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