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Posted by on May 2021 in All Stories, Features, Sector leadership, Sector voices, Slider, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Digitizing housing services: Halton Community Housing Corporation

Images left to right: the outside of a low-rise apartment building; exterior view of a row of townhomes; exterior of a small multi-unit building; the outside of a low-rise apartment building

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic had community housing providers scrambling to adapt their services to meet health restrictions. While many digital services were implemented in response to the pandemic, some housing providers had already started down the path to digitalization.  

Read on to see how Halton Community Housing Corporation (HCHC) has been employing technology to improve their services and how doing so helped support their pandemic response. 

Employing digital solutions 

HCHC houses over 4,000 residents in 2,010 units across 38 communities in Halton Region. Their journey towards digitizing services was motivated by a number of factors including improving resident services, getting a better idea of resident needs, balancing a growing portfolio with finite resources, and reducing risks/human error associated with paper-based systems. The pandemic has been a major factor in how quickly they’ve implemented changes over the past year. 

Joe Valvasori, Manager, Halton Community Housing Corporation tells us that “prior to the pandemic, HCHC was already exploring opportunities to enhance service delivery through technology. Activities such as scanning client files, creating videos of HCHC communities for virtual unit viewings and piloting digital signage in common areas were all initiated to improve customer service. They just ended up becoming even more helpful during COVID restrictions”. 

Improving resident communication 

Consultations conducted with residents identified that improved communication and customer service were high priorities. 

The process to share building meeting dates, scheduled repairs, upcoming programs and social events previously involved posting paper notices on bulletin boards in the lobby areas of each building. HCHC is currently implementing display screens and digital signage to improve communication with residents. The screen displays can be customized with the organization’s branding and design, allowing a consistent look and feel across all HCHC communities. 

The content that goes out on the display screens can be programmed from a central location and saves staff time, and reduces the need to post individual paper notices in each building. Communications can be tailored specifically to each building and information about Halton Region, municipal, Ontario Health Team, and social services can be communicated to residents more easily. Communication can also be offered in multiple languages more efficiently than paper notices allow. The display screens started as a pilot project in two communities and is currently being expanded across the HCHC portfolio. 

Digitizing files 

HCHC found that their hard copy filing system was creating challenges with storage and accessing information. They decided to scan all contents of past and present resident files and store them digitally using standardized e-filing procedures and naming conventions. 

This work started in 2017; over 4,000 files have been scanned to date. Files are currently being digitized as they are developed. Accessing files is now a much simpler process and their availability in a digital format allowed HCHC to transition remote work at the start of the pandemic. 

Community videos

Recognizing the need to improve the unit selection process, HCHC developed promotional videos for all of its communities.  

Where previously applicants would perform their own searches and review units based solely on descriptions, the videos provide much more information and give a good representation of the units available. This saves staff a great deal of time that would have been spent traveling to various communities to show units in person. 

Completed in January 2019, the videos allowed HCHC to transition smoothly to virtual unit viewings during the pandemic, reducing in-person contact between staff and with tenants. 

View HCHC’s community video for John Armstrong Terrace. 

Response to COVID-19 

Rent payment 

Prior to the pandemic, residents were able to pay their rent in cash in person which many did for various reasons. This process meant that staff at the in-person counter were often handling cash and issuing receipts.  

On March 17, 2020 HCHC distributed a memo to all residents encouraging the use of pre-authorized payments or online banking, since the office was closed to the public. Cheque payments are accepted on a case-by-case basis, and cash payments have essentially been suspended going forward to help keep transactions safer for both tenants and staff. 

Implementing these changes, Joe tells us “was actually easier than we thought. The [memos regarding rent payment] include a pre-authorized payment form, and HCHC answered any inquiries residents had about setting up these payments. Between January and December 2020, HCHC saw a 71% drop in cash payments. While we still have a small number of cash payments, the majority of residents made the transition very easily”.

Resident engagement/enrichment activities 

HCHC launched its Community Development Strategy to guide community engagement programming in 2018. The pandemic necessitated the closure of common rooms and community development activities. 

To counter the detrimental effects that the lack of programming was having on the mental and physical health of residents, HCHC worked with community partners to develop virtual activities including online art and health programs, online yoga, and online cooking programs. Moving these activities to an online platform allowed more people to access the programming and helped reduce feelings of isolation in the community.  

Going forward 

Joe tells us that “the lesson learned is while there may be an up-front cost and work involved in making the transition to digitized services, it’s well worth the investment, and that these changes are welcomed and readily accepted by residents”. Of their plans for the future, he says “Our goal is to provide digital options for as many aspects of HCHC service delivery as we can, keeping in mind that we need to support issues of digital accessibility, affordability and literacy with our residents”. 

Do you have questions about digitizing your services? Contact us at member.support@onpha.org. We’re always happy to hear from you, and to help! 

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