Sustainable Housing for Community Well-Being: The Story of Green Violin

Joshua Evans, Affordable Housing Solutions Lab

There are many different types of housing developers: big, small, for-profit, non-profit, eco-friendly, community-led, just to name a few. Whether large or small, for-profit or non-profit, the decisions of these housing developers are influenced by a similar set of factors: availability of land, land-use bylaws, housing policy, and financing. Over time, some housing developers have adapted and thrived within this environment. For some developers, the existing regime presents barriers to entry. This is particularly so for smaller, niche developers looking to innovate. One developer navigating this space is Green Violin. Green Violin is a non-profit organization that seeks to “improve the well-being of our neighborhoods by building innovative spaces where sustainable housing and community come together.” I recently sat down with founder Yasushi Ohki, a Fellow of the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, to learn more about Green Violin. Here is our interview.

Photo: Yasushi Ohki, founder Green Violin

Joshua: What led you to establish Green Violin?

Yasushi: Well, the development industry is not providing adequate housing options for all Edmontonians. As a matter of fact, 30% of Edmontonians are living in unaffordable housing or really stretching to get into housing. So that’s really the start of Green Violin. During my time at Edmonton Housing and Homelessness and Homeward Trust Edmonton, I learned that there are other ways of providing housing that meets the needs of Edmontonians. Since then I began collecting ideas from other parts of Canada, other Canadian cities, and other parts of the world, and trying to see how we could implement them here in Edmonton. So almost 3 years ago to the day, I set up my nonprofit Green Violin and dusted off this folder of ideas on housing innovation.

I’ve got a great little mantra, which is Green Violin is on a five-year mission to innovate, demonstrate, and pilot new housing forms. We’ve just finished year 3. I’m super excited about getting funding in place so that we can get construction going on demonstration units and pilot projects. So that’s where we came from and where we are.

Joshua: Two things stand out to me with regard to the uniqueness of Green Violin. One is certainly your focus on smaller scale projects and forms of housing that are currently missing from our housing system. The second thing is that the model of Green Violin is unique as well, this effort to innovate, test and demonstrate. It’s not just simply building for the sake of building what’s already exists. So innovation is definitely a core characteristic of Green Violin.

Yes, totally. Innovation is super important because we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. And, after spending a career in land development, that’s what we do, the same thing over and over. Take greenfield development, for example. We do residential development around the major corridor areas, do some commercial and then add pathways and parks. Nothing wrong with the suburbs, I’m not trashing the suburbs, but this doesn’t produce the breadth of options that Edmontonians need.  However, this is the formula. And I’ve worked for some homebuilders, volume builders, and their formula works really well for supplying people with one type of housing. There are some unique projects out here in Edmonton, so I’m not saying we’re devoid of any innovation. I’m just saying that in contrast to the world of volume production, I’m looking at different ways of doing things that are too often overlooked.

Joshua: When we were developing a concept or framework for the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, the term innovation was really important. One definition of innovation that’s always stuck with me is the following, “innovation is doing things in a new way or different way that adds value.” So we are talking about originality, but also value. We can define value in many different ways, for example, social value, economic value, and so on. I think one of the things that I have appreciated about Green Violin is that you are always trying to do things differently while also connecting your projects to different kinds of value sets. Sustainability certainly is one that it comes to mind in this regard.

Absolutely. Sustainability and inclusivity are two big foundational ideas that we work on, especially sustainability. Right now with climate action, there’s a lot of focus on environmental sustainability. And the green in Green Violin is to remind me – one planet, one home. We all have to protect it. So in terms of innovation, I am chasing building technologies to address climate action, whether it’s more efficient use of energy and heating for homes, or better insulation to keep that energy we do use in place. For example, organic insulation is one of my demonstration projects. Straw insulation in a house is not a new thing, but maybe new to the Edmonton market. And not straw bale, but straw-like micro fibers. So that’s an example of a technological innovation that contributes to sustainability. But we’re also looking at financial sustainability. Housing, and the operation of housing, should not consume all your time, money and resources, so that you have time to participate in community, and so here you have a third pillar of sustainability, social sustainability. So after coming through this COVID isolation period, there’s this explosion of needing to re-establish contact with people again.

And finally, inclusivity. Inclusivity also comes in 3 parts. So we’re looking at all ages, all incomes and all abilities. So a lot of what Green Violin does is advocate for universal design and accessible housing, and housing for all incomes. So now we’re talking about a model for diverse community, mixed market housing is how we define it. But it’s a community where those who are able to pay, subsidize households with lower incomes. In doing so people of all backgrounds and abilities can all live together in one building.

Joshua: Well, let’s talk a bit about Green Violin’s experience over the last 3 years. Looking back at the last few years, what are the main “barriers to entry” for housing developers, who like yourself, are seeking to develop demonstration projects?

I think, fundamentally, it boils down to staying alive while you get to that monetizing part, in other words getting to a point where it’s self-sustaining. So these 3 years have been tough in terms of how does Green Violin sustain itself? The whole point of being nonprofit is I wanted to take the profit line out of the equation, whether it’s escalating land values, or whether it’s the 20% profit that companies take on construction projects, or whether it’s just the idea that this project has to be profitable. I started Green Violin off, saying, okay, it’s a nonprofit, and we’re gonna stay true to the concept of nonprofit. But running without any profitability is tough in the current environment.

When it comes to developing demonstration projects a fundamental barrier is, how do we get land? And I ran across that in like the first few months, because I looked to getting government grants, and they all ask, do you own the land, or do you have a strong contract to purchase it? So I had to address that when I started Green Violin. And how do I buy land? Well without finding a benevolent benefactor or a philanthropist, I borrowed money, and with that money I bought land. But it’s hard to find good land out there. Getting that land was key, and that was the first barrier I had to overcome.

The second barrier is getting neighborhood support. So that’s when Green Violin really morphed into a public engagement vehicle. I shouldn’t say vehicle because the intent isn’t to do a check box and say, oh, I do public engagement. I guess it’s more of an awakening I had where I’m focusing now on my neighborhood, McCauley. A friend of mine, Steve Grubich, he’s a process engineer, he said, “It sounds like you’re trying to do projects in a developer way where you trying to justify it to the neighbors, why, don’t you just be a neighbor and imagine what you want in your own community.” And that was like the aha moment where I thought, Steve is absolutely right. I’m going to focus in on my McCauley neighborhood and the greater neighborhood, which is Alberta Avenue and Boyle Street and Eastwood, So I focused in on that neighborhood, and I started getting involved with business associations, advocacy groups, Abundant Communities, the Chinatown Transformation collaborative as well as the Chinese Benevolent Association. I started to see who the players were. There’s also in Little Italy, my neighborhood, the Viva Italia District Association. There’s the Alberta Avenue Business Association, Arts on the Avenue.  There’s of course, the community leagues and then the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. The more I looked, the more organizations I found that are really focused on community. And I started getting involved in a lot of these conversations and started finding out that there are a lot of great ideas out there. There’s a lot of people to advocate for my projects. So that’s been both a learning experience and a solution on how to move forward.

There is a third barrier, it’s the city bureaucracy. I worked in the city and there’s some wonderful people there. I know they’re trying to do their best, but it’s the framework within which they work that is problematic. It’s so difficult to get innovation into the ground, so to speak. So once you have the land, you’re paying horrific amounts of interest to get it. Once you got the neighbors on board and you’ve got good projects that are actually going to help the neighbors, doing it is still difficult. As a matter of fact, part of my streamlining was abandoning projects that just couldn’t make it through the City, I’m talking about either zoning or the development permit process.

Joshua: Do you think, though, if you fast forwarded a few years at least, and new bylaws were in place, it would solve the development barriers?

That is a tough question and I know the City of Edmonton is working through it. But one example, it’s easy to say, let’s densify. Maybe it’s difficult to get the processes in place that allows the zoning to say, “Yes, let’s densify,” but the reality is the physical infrastructure. Up-zoning on a city-wide scale, takes away the barriers so yes, at one level it’s going to be much much easier, but at another level, I know there’s going to be push back from the infrastructure people. The pinch points are likely around infrastructure.

A quick example, I had a piece of land that the city sold to me and I wanted to do three small cottages on that property. And it was a wonderful demonstration project, because it was right across the street from the ATCO Veterans village already built. So I had an end user group in mind, I had the parcel of land and I had 3 small houses that were economical to build. We were calling it the 3 little pigs village, because one was straw and one was wood, and one was cement. But when we went to the pre-application meeting, this particular block needs water looping, and fire hydrant, that was a $750,000 cost that they wouldn’t budge from. They said, just fight it, you know you got a good chance. But I’m borrowing money, I don’t have time at the time. So ultimately I had to sell the land, and the irony is whoever bought it. The home builder will do a house with a secondary speed in a garden suite, so we will get 3 dwelling units in there at no fire hydrant up charge.

Joshua: Thinking beyond the barriers, what are your greatest successes so far?

Oh, staying alive up until today! Yeah, surviving yeah, but beyond just surviving, it is important to think about thriving, especially in terms of networking and collaboration. I’m part of the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, and where I’m connected with other fellows and walking through their projects. You’ve got great thinkers on your team, like Laura. I love talking to her because she’s very critical. It’s fantastic, and I totally need that in my network.

I’ve got all sorts of personalities on my team, everybody from instigators and devil’s advocates through to champions, and even larger organizations, are starting to look at my projects and say, hey! And this is something that maybe we can put our mind to. So at the end of 3 years this network has been fantastic to build. It’s all people who are concerned about city building and community. So that’s been a huge success.

Minor project successes, I’ve got seven real projects that are going for Federal grant funding in this next quarter. So it’s gotten to the point where those applications look really solid because of the network, and the people who are volunteering to be as co- applicants. So I’ve got really good hopes going into 2023 that we land some of those dollars and get shove already.

Where do I see Green Violin in ten years? Well, if I finish off our five years with, say, five out of the seven demonstration projects, we are going to capture and document the lessons learned, and all of the community engagement that we’ve done and support that we’ve gotten. The next 5 years is called “scaling up to make a difference,” and that’s where we take the successful models and all the lessons learned to say that we can do this and this is how it works.