The bigger picture: Tenant engagement benefits everyone
By involving tenants in decisions that affect their housing, non-profits can build positive relationships with residents and help build strong communities.
Traditionally, housing providers have operated in a top-down fashion, with staff and board members making decisions on maintenance, building policies, and community improvements. In this model, tenants accept the outcomes of these changes. The tenant engagement model brings residents into the decision-making process and ensures that their preferences and experiences are considered and valued.
Matt Bowen, Manager of Tenant Engagement and Support Services at CityHousing Hamilton, describes tenant engagement as “doing things with tenants, not to them.”
“Tenant engagement invests in the best asset we have – our people. If we’re going to build and strengthen neighbourhoods, tenants need to be in the driver’s seat,” says Bowen.
In the last few years, CityHousing Hamilton (CHH), the fourth largest public housing provider in Ontario, has changed their business model to better include the voices of the 13,000 people who call a CHH property home. At the beginning of the transition, residents were disengaged. Some felt frustrated with CHH and others felt unsafe in their buildings.
“Tenants for a lot of years were sidelined. They had great ideas and suggestions, but no way to share and implement them,” Bowen says. “Unless you have a strategy to engage your community, you’re losing out on a lot.”
In a report on tenant engagement, Tony Gilmour, an affordable housing consultant who’s worked in Australia, the United States and Britain, says that “tenants are knowledgeable about the communities they live in, therefore a useful source of ‘on the ground’ information for management. They can provide feedback on property design and maintenance, potentially minimizing costs.”
To begin, CHH asked tenants for feedback and evaluation. Staff hosted ‘have your say’ meetings, emailed surveys, hand-delivered evaluation forms, and invited residents to call and email with their suggestions. The response from tenants was bigger than expected and feedback included suggestions as well as complaints.
“When you seek out feedback and you don’t have a good relationship, you’re going to hear a lot of things you don’t like,” Bowen explains.
CHH staff followed through on some tenant suggestions, like starting new community gardens, implementing new security features, and facilitating art therapy programs. Tenants were consulted for decisions about floor plans, playgrounds, building security, maintenance, and asset renewal. There are three tenant representatives on CHH’s Board and all tenants are invited to attend meetings.
“Serving on boards or tenant committees is thought to build an individual’s social capital, reducing feelings of isolation and teaching new skills,” says Gilmour, who adds that a tenant engagement strategy can help providers reach newcomers, people with disabilities, and tenants with other barriers to participation.
With help from staff, CHH tenants formed Step by Step, a committee that helps residents connect with each other, share ideas, and work through challenges. The committee works with CHH management to make decisions that benefit everyone in the organization.
“It’s extremely important from a resiliency standpoint,” says Bowen. “Community engagement helps to build robust neighbourhoods.”
At CHH, all staff are trained on best practices for working with tenants. When coaching his team, Bowen encourages workers providing customer service or maintenance to “ask themselves ‘would that be acceptable where you live?’”
Although CHH is still new to tenant engagement, they’ve begun to see some positive changes. Families are more involved in their neighbourhoods, which has led to cost savings in maintenance and a reduction in vandalism. Attendance at CHH’s Annual General Meetings has gone up by over 50 per cent, indicating that more residents are taking an active interest in their housing.
“Systemically there’s been a change,” Bowen says. “We’re not perfect, but we’ve changed how we do business to show that we care about our tenants.”