Seven lessons for implementing social activities in rental housing

Social activities for neighbours can help build a sense of community, boosting health, happiness, and resilience in multi-unit buildings.

When people know and trust their neighbours, they report numerous benefits, such as greater mental and physical health, a strong sense of belonging, and resilience in the face of personal and collective crises.

Over the past four years, we worked with Concert Properties to understand how resident-led social activities in multi-unit buildings can foster connections between neighbours. Previously, we told the story of the Community Connectors program, in which Concert supported resident volunteers (“Community Connectors”) to organize low-barrier social activities for their buildings. By providing opportunities for neighbours to get to know one another better, the program sought to build a stronger sense of community.

Based on this research, we collaborated with Hey Neighbour Collective to create a Practice Guide (PDF) on how to implement social programming in multi-unit housing. Here, we share some of the key learnings from the Community Connectors program, and seek to start a conversation on how—and why—rental housing providers can implement similar social programming initiatives.

Have you lived in a building with resident-led social activities? Or do you organize activities for a residential community or multi-unit building? We’d love to hear about your experience, and share your insights. Get in touch.

A version of this article was first published by Happy Cities.

1. Pandemic challenges led to creative solutions

The Community Connectors program started in 2020. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic began, bringing community-wide lockdowns. The pandemic only reinforced the importance of initiatives like Community Connectors, highlighting how important neighbourly connections are for community health and resilience. For example, during the early days of the pandemic, many seniors or immunocompromised people leaned on younger or healthier neighbours to help them get their groceries and run errands.

Although pandemic restrictions made it difficult to organize safe social events, the adaptability of the Community Connectors program was key to its success. COVID-19 paved the way for residents to come up with creative and flexible social activities that respected public health guidelines, such as those in the Together, Apart Toolkit.

Snapshot of results from Happy Cities’ wellbeing survey of residents at Collingwood Village: 35% of respondents noted that COVID-19 had worsened their ability to meet with neighbours: 30% expressed that COVID-19 had worsened their sense of community in their building.
Snapshot of results from Happy Cities’ wellbeing survey of residents at Collingwood Village.

2. Building design matters for sociability

Studies show that people’s housing satisfaction is directly related to their access to shared amenity spaces in their building, such as media rooms or lounges. But even without dedicated amenity spaces, all multi-unit residential buildings contain unnoticed spaces that can be activated to bring people together. The Community Connectors activities show that even seemingly unremarkable spaces—like entrances, walls, elevator foyers, and parkades—represent big opportunities to create places where people can pause and interact with neighbours.

Community Connectors made the most of these ordinary spaces by organizing activities such as:

  1. Distributing seed packets and encouraging residents to share photos of their gardening online with each other,
  2. Hanging an interactive recipe board in the laundry room,
  3. Organizing an easter basket giveaway.

3. People already want to get to know their neighbours

Regular social programming may hold the key for making the step from acquaintances to trusting neighbours—or friends. In turn, stronger social connections can foster greater resilience, health, and happiness in multi-unit buildings.

The majority of residents we surveyed said they spoke with neighbours a few times a week or more; however, the majority of these residents (58% in 2022) said they didn’t consider any of their neighbours as friends. Despite people reporting few close connections in their building, over half of the people we surveyed said they would like to get to know their neighbours better (a finding that is also supported by Vancouver Foundation’s 2017 Connect & Engage survey).

How often do residents talk to their neighbours? 20% never, 13% monthly, 60% weekly, 7% daily.
Snapshot of results from Happy Cities’ wellbeing survey of residents at Collingwood Village.

These data suggest that most residents do want to get to know neighbours better, but that saying hello in the hallway on its own might not lead to a deeper social connection. This is where social programming can play a crucial role.

This gap between wanting to be friends with neighbours versus actually forming friendships with neighbours represents a huge opportunity for housing providers: specifically, they can provide the necessary structure and support for residents to begin organizing simple social activities.

In addition to helping people feel at home in a new building or city, organized social opportunities help remind new and long-time residents that they are not alone in wanting to connect with their neighbours. For example, Concert residents said they were surprised to see how many people wanted to participate in social activities and showed up to the events. And after participating in just one event, 60 per cent of people said they felt more likely to ask a neighbour for a small favour, while 30 per cent felt certain they would.

Without the encouragement of the Community Connectors program, this common desire might have gone unrecognized, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents who described having 1 or 2 friends in the building were more likely to feel welcome than people who report having no friends in the building.
Snapshot of results from Happy Cities’ wellbeing survey of residents at Collingwood Village.

4. Diverse activities and Connectors support accessibility and inclusion

By hosting a wide range of activities, Community Connectors can attract residents with different interests and backgrounds.

Activities with low barriers to participation and a flexible structure are important for ensuring that a wide range of residents can take part, regardless of their ability or time. Additionally, Connectors found that hosting frequent and consistent events created time and space for people to form meaningful connections with one another, and helped establish lasting social traditions or resources in their building.

By collecting data on who is attending what types of activities, program organizers can identify how activities are supporting wellbeing for people of different backgrounds, ages, and abilities.

5. Light-touch activities can lead to enduring engagement

Many of the initial events that Connectors organized were casual, “one-off” activities that were easy to run and participate in. Participants commented that these “light-touch” events often jump-started deeper or more lasting connections among neighbours.

“I learned we should practice consistency and patience, respecting differences and allowing time to establish meaningful connections with others. Start small and allow people to do things at their own pace.”

— Community Connector

These low-barrier or “passive” activities that people could complete on their own time were particularly successful at generating participation from residents (and also succeeded at avoiding “Zoom fatigue” during a time of increased online interaction). They can also encourage people to linger in shared spaces, increasing the likelihood of meeting a neighbour.

These types of activities include:

  • Setting up puzzles in lobby and lounge areas to encourage people to pause on their way through
  • Installing a whiteboard in the lobby and posing questions on it, asking neighbours to share their thoughts and engage with one another
  • Starting a building slack channel

6. “People support” is critical to success

To launch a social programming initiative, success hinges on having a small group of committed residents who are motivated to organize activities. But, however motivated they may be, Community Connectors need support and resources from their landlord or building manager in order to sustain activities on a regular basis—and maintain their own energy and commitment.

When asked, many Community Connectors noted that Concert’s Sustainability Coordinator, building managers, fellow Connectors, and residents were vital support resources. Connectors also enjoyed sharing their experiences, learnings, and ideas with one another during regular video meetings, such as sharing strategies on how to best spread the word to residents about upcoming activities.

Resources, such as activity ideas or templates for event planning, can provide further guidance for residents who volunteer to organize social activities.

Community connectors survey findings: top five support resources identified by the Community Connectors (resident volunteers): 90% support from my building or property manager, 70% collaborating with other connectors in my building, 70 Support from Concert Social Sustainability Coordinator; 60% facilitated online gatherings with Community Connectors; 40% monthly honorarium; Only 10 percent of building managers said they were "very involved" in helping connectors, yet Connectors overwhelmingly identified support from their building manager as the most important support resource.
Snapshot of results from Hey Neighbour Collective’s survey of Community Connectors across 15 Concert buildings.

7. Social programming benefits everyone

Housing providers may wonder what’s in it for them—why should a landlord invest in their residents’ social connectedness?

Beyond just social connection, resident activities build trust and care—among residents and staff, and for the building’s physical spaces. Despite pandemic setbacks, many of Concert’s building managers said they personally witnessed benefits including improved relationships between staff and residents, reduced conflicts between tenants, increased safety and belonging, and greater care for physical property.

“There will be a sense of ownership with the building. Residents will take care of property more because a stronger relationship with residents and staff is being fostered.”

— Building manager

Further, social programming can increase the marketability of residences to prospective tenants and investors. After all, innovative and exciting building amenities are often used as selling points in condo and rental buildings. It only makes sense for building owners to think of social programming as a similar type of marketable infrastructure.

“There has been a noticeable increase in connection between residents [since launching Community Connectors]. Prospective tenants really appreciate the initiative as well.”

— Building manager


The Community Connectors program shows that many multi-unit housing residents are innately interested in connecting with their neighbours. At the same time, many people don’t realize that their neighbours share this desire to connect. Meanwhile, the design of some multi-unit buildings can discourage pausing and lingering in common spaces.

Resident-led programming offers a flexible but impactful solution for boosting social connectedness in multi-unit housing. Evidently, the Community Connectors program attracted residents who were already interested in getting to know their neighbours better. But we also observed a positive reinforcement cycle, whereby people who participated in social activities continued wanting to do so. In this way, the program built a foundation for transforming one-off interactions into ongoing neighbourly connections.

Organized social activities can therefore act as a catalyst, offering residents a safe and comfortable opportunity for people to meet and learn more about their neighbours. In turn, social opportunities can help build a trusting community of residents, which can boost people’s health, happiness, and resilience, while increasing care for the building’s property and making the life of a landlord easier.

Interested in learning more?

We have compiled these insights into a practice guide on implementing resident-led social programming in multi-unit housing.