Maintaining tenant engagement and building community under social distancing
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. Whether you’re an essential worker, working from home, have been laid off or are otherwise unemployed, one thing we all share is the need to practice social distancing. While necessary, these restrictions are proving difficult for many. So what role can housing providers play to ensure tenant and community well-being? We talked to community housing providers across Ontario to see what they’re doing to keep tenants connected and informed while helping to reduce social isolation.
Communicating with tenants
As a housing provider, one of the simplest and most effective ways to help your tenants deal with the confusion and worry surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is to communicate with them clearly and regularly.
Staff at Housing Cambridge began their tenant communication strategy by compiling a list of the best ways to reach individual tenants, sorting them by who has internet access, who is on Twitter, those who can be reached by phone, and those who need to receive hard copy notices. General Manager Steve Garrison explains that this approach helped them expand the ways they communicate important information to their tenants.
He elaborates: “we have sent out nine COVID-19 Notices to date. Notice 01 [for example] provides an overview of how we will communicate during the pandemic, how residents can help to flatten the curve, maintenance requests during COVID-19 and how they can access our services and where they can find additional information and resources”. Click here to view Housing Cambridge’s communication hub and see their notices to tenants.
Some housing providers have taken to performing tenant wellness checks to help keep tabs on the health of their communities. Jim Steele, CEO of Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation, speaks to the importance of the check-ins for tenant well-being and informing WECHC’s approach to tenant support during the pandemic:
“The tenants seem very receptive to the check-ins. We are also obtaining a lot of other information and insights that are anecdotally used to inform our decisions… We are pleased that everything seems to be going well so far. We have had concerns about food security but local agencies have more than stepped up and we haven’t yet had major issues. The wellness checks will continue though, so we can identify any changes in that trend”.
Windsor Essex CHC has reassigned employees to conduct the check-ins and have developed a script to ensure that the feedback received can be used “to establish a baseline of wellness and redirect resources, if required”. Questions include a simple “How are things going?”, “Are you in need of anything?” and “Are you in isolation?” Aside from providing valuable data and insight into tenant needs, the check-ins allow tenants to feel heard and help reduce feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
Tenant engagement initiatives
Community Worker Jason Perfect of Housing Cambridge has spent much of his time since the beginning of the emergency legislation identifying tenants who may be isolated and calling them to check in and chat on a regular basis. Steve Garrison explains one of the initiatives that Jason is working on to connect with seniors:
“Jason is working with the City of Cambridge around the roll-out of a new initiative directed at isolated seniors. It is called Without Walls (WOW). Through WOW, seniors can sign up to participate in calls in which they connect and visit with a number of other seniors who are also on the call. The City is using a program called Mercuri, which allows the host to initiate calls to seniors and bring them into the group call. The senior does not need to navigate a conference number or provide a conference ID. Jason is going to set up Housing Cambridge with a Mercuri account. We will then introduce the idea in our buildings among seniors that already know each other [and] encourage residents to try the same experience through the City program in order to meet new people.”
Community gardens have also been an ongoing tenant engagement initiative at Housing Cambridge and Steve believes that this activity can continue while respecting social distancing practices. Steve explains further, “we also have a micro grant program called ‘Sprouts’, aimed at supporting projects [that facilitate] strong and resilient communities at our housing sites. We will continue to accept applications for Sprouts grants so long as they explain how the project can be carried out respecting social distancing”.
Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC), a tenant-led organization, hosted a ‘Neighbourhood Network’ video conference to solicit ideas from the community as to how to allow for social and recreational programs that fall within social distancing guidelines. Laine Johnson, Director of Tenant and Community Engagement, helped lead the discussion and tells us that having community involvement in creating the initiatives is critical. Their group came up with ideas for engagement that include: door decorating, a CCOC talent competition, an art contest/colouring contest for kids, sidewalk chalk art, implementing phone trees, and online games like Drawful and Kahoot.
For their part, Windsor Essex CHC is looking into options for their Summer Recreation Program and are looking to do many of their children’s programs virtually where possible. They hope to have socially distanced activities available later in the summer.
Are you thinking about ways to engage with your community during the pandemic or want to share your initiatives? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always happy to hear from you, and to help!
Be sure to visit onpha.on.ca/covid19 to stay up to date with the latest information you need to help run your organization during the pandemic.