Practice Guide #1: Supporting residents to become community connectors in multi-unit housing

First in a series of four guides from Hey Neighbour Collective about strategies and practices to increase neighbour-to-neighbour connections and social resilience among residents living in multi-unit buildings.

Social connectedness has been demonstrated to strengthen health, well-being, and individual and collective resilience. Meanwhile, multi-unit housing such as apartments and condominiums are becoming a prominent form of housing in many fast-growing urban areas. So, what are the best approaches for helping nurture and strengthen neighbourly social connections in these spaces, and what kinds of benefits can result?

These practice guides are written specifically for residents, landlords, housing operators, non-profit organizations, and municipal governments. The guides summarize Hey Neighbour Collective’s key learnings about the vital roles that each of these groups can play in fostering neighbour-to-neighbour connectedness and social resilience in multi-unit housing. The guides also point to the top tips, tactics, and strategic approaches, and describe the most common benefits that emerge for everyone involved.

Find and download the practice guides in this series. Find all five of the recent practice guides on our resources page.

Practice Guide #1: Supporting residents to become community connectors in multi-unit housing

“Resident champions” or “social animators” can do a lot to help foster more vibrant, connected communities in multi-unit housing. The results are often a greater sense of belonging for everyone and more robust practices of spontaneous mutual aid, among other benefits. This guide discusses fun activities that residents can initiate, both “light-touch” and more involved, from lobby puzzles and doggy play-dates to emergency preparedness workshops. Also explored are many relatively easy things that landlords, housing operators, community organizations, and governments can do to support residents in making these kinds of activities happen.

Partners acknowledgment

This learning report would not be possible without all of the Collective’s many partners including our Community of Practice, Research team members, and Learning Network Collaborators. Our thanks goes out to all of these partners who share the Collective’s concern about rising loneliness and social isolation and see a role for the housing, health and urban planning sectors to collaborate on solutions.

The value of social connection

Social isolation has been linked with negative impacts on life satisfaction, safety, health, and emotional well-being. Conversely, social connectedness has been demonstrated to strengthen health, well-being, and individual and collective resilience.

Multi-unit housing such as apartments and condominiums are becoming the dominant form of housing in many urban centres. Often, for a variety of intersecting reasons, people living in multi-unit housing tend to know their neighbours less than people in single family dwellings. However, this can be seen as an opportunity rather than as a problem: There are many examples in BC and around the world of residents in multi-unit housing finding ways to increase their social connectedness — starting with connections to each other.

Building design, amenity areas, and duration, stability, and affordability of residency, alongside programming activities led by residents or building operators can help or hinder the fostering of friendly social connections.

Connected neighbours often feel a greater sense of safety and belonging and are more likely to assist each other through difficulties and emergencies. There are also many benefits for housing operators, governments, and community organizations when residents of multi-unit housing are more connected and mutually supportive.

Neighbourliness doesn’t just “automatically happen,” though. Social connectedness between neighbours improves dramatically when it’s intentionally nurtured — and that’s what these guides are all about.

Read more about the links between loneliness, social isolation and well-being.

How a resident community connector can help

Resident community connectors can play vital roles in growing social connectedness in multi-unit housing.

A resident community connector (also sometimes called a resident champion or social animator) is a person who takes a leadership role in bringing neighbours together in a building, street or neighbourhood. Connectors may emerge spontaneously in a multi-unit building, or be appointed or intentionally supported by individuals or organizations such as a housing operator or a community nonprofit. Connectors can have any of a variety of motivations, from simply enjoying social activities themselves to improving shared emergency preparedness among neighbours.

A connector gets to know neighbours, learning about their strengths and needs, and then helps network them together based on their shared interests, gifts, resources, or skills that they can offer each other. A connector may also invite groups of residents to participate in events and activities related to their common interests.

Community connectors are usually people who…

  • Can overcome small practical challenges or hurdles.
  • Are comfortable organizing small groups and sharing leadership with others.
  • See people as active participants creating their own community rather than merely recipients of services.
  • Generate ideas for group events and activities.
  • Embrace diversity and inclusion.
  • Are willing to learn how to do outreach and engage others.
  • Have a little free time, and enjoy communicating and building relationships with others.
  • Believe everyone has gifts, strengths, or talents to share, and have a knack for listening, learning, and spotting these in relationships with others.
  • Enjoy bringing together people with shared interests or complementary skills.

One of the main reasons to support residents themselves to take some leadership in community building is that this encourages them to focus on their own strengths and assets. Rather than being only passive participants in social events organized by someone else, when they become “community connectors,” resident leaders and coleaders experience the sense of agency, empowerment, and joy of community building, actively knitting their own networks together.

For example, many residents in Le Blond Place in Victoria, BC, are older adults living with disabilities and, after participating in a series of Connect & Prepare workshops, one resident champion said, “We feel like we are building a vertical village where, instead of feeling unable, we now, as a group, are more than able. What one can’t do alone, many individuals can contribute from the abundance of talent we have here.”

“A ‘connector’ is often the spark that energizes the community’s capacity to create a culture for the common good.”

John McKnight, Co-founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute

What are the benefits of encouraging and supporting residents to become more socially connected?

There are many potential benefits to residents, landlords, housing operators, non-profit organizations and local governments alike when multi-unit buildings host vibrant resident communities.

A diagram of circles with residents at the centre, then landlords, housing operators, non-profit organizations, municipalities.

Benefits for residents

  • More vibrant social life
  • Increased individual and collective well-being and resilience

Benefits for landlords

  • Safer buildings
  • Improved reputation and market advantage among tenants
  • Increased brand equity with investors
  • Greater goodwill from governments that support landlords who focus on community building

Benefits for housing operators

  • More stable tenancies
  • Reduced tenant conflicts
  • Greater sense of belonging and care for property among residents

Benefits for non-profit community organizations

  • Easier outreach to residents in multi-unit buildings
  • Opportunities for collaborations with residents and landlords that can improve reach and services

Benefits for municipalities

  • Strengthened community support systems
  • Improved emergency preparedness and resilience

Many ways to engage: Spotlight on Concert Properties’ Community Connectors Program

One effective approach for engaging residents is to “meet them where they are at” by supporting community connectors to offer a wide range of different kinds of activities. This ensures many different kinds of people with diverse interests will feel drawn to participating. This is the approach Concert Properties recently took.

Concert Properties is a real estate company that has always operated with a bigger vision of its role in social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Building on their Sustainability Framework (PDF), Concert ran a “Community Connectors” program to help foster neighbour-to-neighbour connections among their residents. After participating in the City of Vancouver’s Hey Neighbour pilot project, Concert hired a Social Sustainability Coordinator with a mission to help inspire and support resident leaders to engage in community building. (See Guide 2: Landlord and Housing Operator-led Approaches to Growing Community in Multi-unit Housing for more about how Concert managed the program.)

The Community Connectors eventually led many different kinds of social events and activities ranging from online meetings to in-person paint-ins.

Follow-up surveys found that…

  • 90% of residents who participated in these events said that they felt more likely or certain that they could ask for a small favour from a neighbour in the future
  • 100% of those surveyed said that they had met three or more new neighbours

Overall, participation in the Community Connectors program was associated with 5x greater odds of residents wanting to get to know neighbours better — indicating a positive, self-reinforcing cycle of social activity.

“We’ve also had success with simple, passive activities like bulletin boards or puzzles in the lobby or laundry room, where passers-by can engage organically within the boundaries of their own comfort zones, while still facilitating a sense of community.”

Nicole Viduka, Former Social Sustainability Coordinator

What kinds of activities do community connectors lead?

Another Hey Neighbour Collective Partner, Building Resilient Neighbourhoods, loosely groups different types of neighbour-connection activities into four categories: Celebrations & Gatherings; Placemaking & Passive Animation; Sharing, Mutual Aid & Neighbourliness, and Learning and Planning Together. Concert’s community connectors did all of these!

Examples of events and activities launched by Concert Community Connectors

  • Doggy Play Date. Dogs were invited to meet their canine neighbours—and to bring along their humans, too—at a nearby park. 
  • Video Speedfriending. A Zoom event with breakout rooms for participants prompted by fun questions to spark light-hearted discussions. Resident: “The event led to sharing some great ideas and us launching an online communication medium to maintain those connections.”
  • Mural Paint-in. A large, paint-by-numbers mural that residents could add to. Resident: “Everyone could participate, and it felt like we could all see the fruit of our labour.”
  • Lobby Puzzle and Sharing Table. A table in the lobby held puzzles for neighbours to contribute to. The table became a “hub” for neighbours to communicate with each other passively during the pandemic, sharing such things as artwork and recipes. Resident: “Everyone felt more connected even when we weren’t seeing each other so much.” 
  • Neighbour-to-neighbour surveys. Surveys, sometimes offering small prizes for participation, asked residents about activities they’d like to participate in and how they could collectively make the Community Connectors program a success. 

“Personally, I experienced a big mindset shift in terms of how I see my neighbours [since I became a Connector]. It was encouraging to realize that there are a lot of interesting people around [who are] eager to connect with others. Basically, [many neighbours are] awaiting an opportunity.”—Concert Community Connector

Engaging around a shared purpose: Spotlight on “resident champions” in Building Resilient Neighbourhoods’ Connect & Prepare program

Another effective way to support resident community champions is by helping initiate and facilitate sustained activities around an issue that’s vitally important to many residents—get neighbours “learning together for change.” For example, many people are concerned about being prepared amid increasingly frequent natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Building Resilient Neighbourhoods (BRN) partnered with VictoriaReady, the City of Victoria’s Emergency Management Division, to deliver the Connect & Prepare program to groups of residents living in multi-unit housing in Victoria, British Columbia. The program brings residents together to learn about the value of social connections for preparedness in relation to chronic stresses and acute emergencies. Residents are then coached in launching shared projects to strengthen their collective resilience.

BRN and VictoriaReady invited residents to apply to help co-host and participate in the Connect & Prepare program—thereby identifying volunteers who were passionate about emergency preparedness and social resilience and willing to be “resident champions” around these issues. The organizations then coached the champions in doing outreach to their neighbours and liaising with their building manager. The champions, BRN social-connection experts, and VictoriaReady emergency management staff all co-hosted several discussion, learning, and planning workshops. The groups of neighbours received small subsidies and micro-grants to support the workshop hosting costs, the development of their shared action projects, and their purchase of shared emergency supplies. The champions were also invited to join a larger “Champions Circle” for ongoing sharing and learning.

In one Capital Region Housing Corporation building, many of the residents were older adults or people with disability, and neighbours launched a food sharing system along with a buddy network for checking in and helping each other during heatwaves. Since then, Connect & Prepare has also been delivered in buildings managed by other Hey Neighbour Collective partners including Catalyst Community Developments Society and Concert Properties.

Light touch, yet ongoing: Spotlight on West End Seniors Network’s “Close to Home” Program

West End Seniors Network (WESN) has combined elements of both light-touch, one-off activities and ongoing support to assist resident champions to be connectors in the buildings where they live. 

The WESN Close To Home program aims to counter isolation and loneliness in multi-unit buildings that have high proportions of older adults by offering onsite programs and events, and also supporting group or “buddy” outings. Through outreach efforts, WESN identifies one or more volunteer resident connectors in a building, and then collaborates with these connectors to organize activities. 

For example, in one building in Vancouver, WESN offered a free lunch, and met with several residents who attended. Next, WESN staff and volunteer residents organized a “lobby intercept” party, where they invited residents to socialize and participate in a survey about future activities that they would be interested in. This then led to more events and activities. In another building, WESN connected with an existing, active resident connector, and they began to collaborate on hosting events for residents.

Different approaches to supporting social connections

There is no “one size fits all” way to cultivate or support resident connectors, but residents, landlords, housing operators, non-governmental organizations, and governments can all play important roles in creating enabling conditions and encouraging residents to take leadership in helping develop community.

Enabling entityTypes of assistanceExamples
  • Co-organizing
  • Helping connect to other residents
  • Co-champions who share the work
  • Buddy systems for checking on each other’s safety
Landlords and housing operators
  • Permissions, support, or collaboration with building managers
  • Leadership or other enabling support
  • Support with outreach and communications to and between residents
  • Providing access to amenity areas for group activities
  • Stipends, subsidies or budget to cover costs or remove financial barriers (e.g. childcare subsidies, event-hosting costs)
Non-governmental organizations
  • Partnerships with residents that help bring in specialized skills, services, activities, or programs
  • Coaching and training in community development, facilitation, and communicationOpportunity to be part of a peer learning group
Local governments
  • Enabling regulations and supports
  • Supporting common spaces, courtyards, or street or park parties for multi-unit complexes

Effective approaches for resident connectors

  • Bridging. Building community is about respecting and showing interest in others, and trying to increase everyone’s sense of belonging. Connectors are mindful of things that could be impeding people’s participation, and try to make events and activities more welcoming and accessible for everyone.
  • Starting small. Some residents may feel more comfortable committing only to one specific project or event for a prescribed time period. Connectors give ongoing relationships time to develop.
  • Embracing small. Events that only involve casual connections among tiny groups of people are not “failures”—in fact, starting “intimately” is often the best, most organic way to gradually grow larger groups and more connections.
  • Encouraging co-leadership. The more people feel a sense of inclusion and empowerment, the stronger the community will be, and the more likely it will endure over time.
  • Using a strengths-based approach. People are more likely to attend, keep returning and build bonds if they feel valued and are engaged in contributing in positive, constructive activities.
  • Avoiding cliques. Sometimes buildings already have or develop a group of prominent residents who are often in leadership roles, and over time others may withdraw. Connectors look for opportunities to balance representation and participation through a range of activities that engage different kinds of residents, tailoring events and activities to different needs, interests, and demographics, and encouraging others to share leadership.
  • Collaborating with building managers. Liasing and collaborating with building staff can be critical, enabling resident animators through permissions and logistical and communications support.

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Land acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge that the learnings represented in this guide were gleaned from HNC partners working in numerous unceded, traditional and ancestral territories, including those of the following peoples: Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓ (Kwantlen), q̓ic̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), sɛmiˈɑːmu (Semiahmoo), Qayqayt, sc̓əwaθən məsteyəxʷ (Tsawwassen), Syilx (Okanagan), and Lək̓ʷəŋən (Esquimalt and Songhees.)

Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) recognizes that colonialism isolates Indigenous Peoples intentionally and by design, by, for example, prohibiting cultural practices, separating communities, and weakening family and language ties. HNC recognizes these historic and ongoing inequities and systemic barriers and strives to be part of movements to correct them.

Funders Acknowledgment

HNC’s work would not be possible without the support of our funders and sponsors from 2019 onwards. They are:

Practice guide 1 funder logos, including United Way, Real Estate Foundation, BC Housing, BCNPHA, Vancity, Landlord BC, McConnell, Mitacs, City of North Vancoouver, and more.