COVID-19: Lessons learned and where do we go from here?
Since Ontario started feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, ONPHA has been bringing our members together to share best practices and policies to help one another to continue and adapt their operations and services.
One of the big questions on everyone’s mind is ‘where do we go from here?’ Housing providers have done an admirable job of quickly adapting their operations, health and safety protocols, and services to comply with public health regulations, but what about the long term? How can we continue to operate safely and successfully as the pandemic wears on? We recently gathered housing providers from across the province and the country to discuss their successes, lessons learned, and their plans for the future.
BC Housing responded quickly to the realities of the pandemic, shifting over 300 staff to a virtual work environment, and redeploying over 100 employees to administer a rent relief program to BC residents who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Vice President of Operations, Angela Cooke stresses that the learning process is ongoing and they are still adapting to the new demands on their organization.
BC Housing has taken on many new initiatives including:
- setting up a supply and distribution team to source, stockpile, and distribute PPE and cleaning supplies across the sector in BC
- establishing meal programs for non-profit providers and community services they support
- securing over 900 beds for those living in tent settlements in Victoria and Vancouver
- purchasing hotels to provide safe, long-term housing options
- opening the first-of-its-kind 24/7 shelter for sex workers, providing 23 beds and soon to be offering services to address the specific needs of its clients
BC Housing continues to innovate and fill service gaps. They are currently developing strategies for youth homelessness, youth aging out of the care system, and for individuals leaving the justice system. They also plan to bring 2800 housing units online by March 2021.
Peel Housing Corporation
One of Peel Housing Corporation’s main points of focus throughout the pandemic has been communicating and engaging with their tenants. General Manager Andrea Warren told us that being compassionate and supportive of tenants has been a key part of their strategy.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Peel Housing Corporation has prioritized engaging with and educating tenants by:
- posting information in common areas about health and safety precautions and services for grocery and medication delivery
- launching a virtual wellness check-in program for seniors
- developing a quarterly newsletter to keep tenants informed
- conducting wellness checks by phone for seniors and potentially vulnerable tenants
- developing a robust arrears strategy to engage with tenants on rent repayments that has diverted over 80 potential cases away from the Landlord and Tenant Board
Peel Housing Corporation has also developed a volunteer ambassador program with the Region to run education programs and has collaborated with their local health department to ensure they could reopen their community spaces including gardens, playgrounds, and cooling stations over the summer. Going forward, Andrea tells us that the organization is looking to expand their Seniors Connect program. Overall, Peel Housing Corporation sees in their current state, an opportunity for modernization; they have brought in a business process expert to help with the process.
Windsor-Essex Community Housing Corporation
Windsor-Essex CHC has also taken the pandemic as an opportunity for modernization and improvement. CEO Jim Steele tells us that they had been planning to regenerate their portfolio and that COVID-19 taught them that they can work faster than they thought.
Jim concedes that they were lucky in having hired a health and safety manager three years ago whose leadership has proved invaluable. Jim tells us that Windsor-Essex CHC quickly reacted, reassessed, reconfigured [the] corporation, and reinvented [their] activities. For example, they already had MS Teams and laptops for staff, as well as Yardi 7 in place, but quickly realized they could do so much more with these products than they had planned for.
In adapting and modernizing operations and services, Windsor-Essex CHC, among many other initiatives:
- set board members up with MS Teams to hold board meetings virtually
- transitioned to contactless service delivery and saw an increase in use of established virtual services for maintenance requests, customer service, and rent repayments
- developed socially-distanced tenant programming including outdoor yoga and bingo
- established and distributed a local housing benefit to 60 individuals in their community
Windsor-Essex CHC is now looking at a major regeneration plan. They are partnering with CMHC, and continuing to seek funding from all levels of government to address the need for more housing. They are currently resetting their Strategic Plan and applying the lessons they learned throughout COVID-19. The challenges they’ve faced have reaffirmed their resolve to improve their services and serve their community.
Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC)
CCOC Executive Director Ray Sullivan tells us that the organization didn’t have a pandemic plan when the emergency orders were announced, but they are now on the third version of their current plan. They’ve worked to position themselves as part of the solution, being proactive rather than simply following emergency orders.
Ray says that in some ways, they were lucky. They implemented Yardi two years ago and had already switched their staff to laptops and tablets, implemented an online phone service, and had started to communicate with tenants via email and social media.
They have set up their own organizational thresholds for providing services based on the number of active cases in Ottawa. When community transition risk is low, CCOC’s operations are ‘mostly normal’; services are reduced as risk increases. Having these objective measures in place reduces some of the stress of decision-making about closing or opening services and allowed staff to know what to expect. Ray expresses gratitude for the CCOC staff and tells us that they are still innovating and improving their services as the pandemic wears on.
District of Timiskaming Social Services Administration Board
Playing the dual role of housing provider and service manager, the District of Timiskaming Social Services Administration Board has the same concerns as other housing providers, with the additional challenge of administering child care, employment, and health services. Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Black tells us that despite the District’s low case counts (they haven’t had an active case since April), they are still required to follow emergency orders and have faced numerous challenges in providing services.
One of the first things the DSSAB did was to create an emergency response team. This team, composed of five managers, is responsible for drafting policies, sending communications and consulting with the wider management team, and has driven the organizational response to COVID-19.
Kelly tells us that one of the biggest challenges they faced was that some services, such as childcare, were forced to shut down, while others, such as housing and ambulance services were extra busy. They were able to redeploy staff around the organization to fill the gaps, and avoided laying off any employees.
As restrictions eased in their part of the province, the DSSAB looked to be proactive and built a pandemic roadmap to clarify restrictions based on stages that they labeled on the spectrum of green to red (red being the highest alert level). They also took the time to update their work from home and mandatory mask policies.
Like other organizations, Timiskaming DSSAB is going into their strategic planning process with very different objectives, and is approaching their business model with a different mindset.
Richview Baptist Foundation
As a provider of housing for seniors, Richview Baptist Foundation faced its own set of concerns. Executive Director Jane Kuchma tells us that due to the nature of the services they provide, they had to adapt quickly to meet the needs of residents.
One of the first adjustments Richview had to make was to close their in-building dining room, which functions as a restaurant and a social gathering place, and shift to providing takeout options for residents. While these operational tweaks can be challenging, Jane tells us that one of the biggest concerns they faced at the beginning of the pandemic was managing the residents’ perceptions.
Located near a long-term care centre that was suffering with a serious outbreak of COVID-19, residents were understandably nervous about the risk of transmission in the building. They wondered why their building was still open, and many asked that it be closed to the public. Jane says that since they provide independent living services, they couldn’t isolate in the way long term care homes were.
Richview posted informational signage, installed hand sanitizer stations and encouraged self-screening for visitors. They published a letter in April’s edition of their monthly newsletter, signed by Jane, explaining to residents the nature of the organization, how they operated, why they didn’t close down, and assured residents that they had communicable disease policies in place that follow Toronto Public Health guidelines. Many residents relied upon family to receive groceries and medication, so keeping their doors open allowed for those supports to continue.
Each of these organizations faced similar challenges as well as ones unique to them. The ways by which they not only adapted to these trying circumstances, but used the adversity they faced to update policies, modernize their operations, and re-frame their strategic thinking is a testament to the creativity and versatility of our sector.
Have a question about operating during COVID-19? Want to share your best practices? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always happy to hear from you, and to help!