Practice Guide #2: Landlord- and housing operator-led approaches to growing community in multi-unit housing

Second in a series of four practice 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 four practice guides in this series. Find all five of the recent practice guides on our resources page.

Practice Guide #2: Landlord- and housing operator-led approaches to growing community in hulti-unit Housing

With relatively small investments of staff time or resources, landlords and housing operators can benefit from fostering greater social connections in multi-unit housing. Residents often show greater care for the property, for example, while conflicts may become less frequent. Featuring real-world testimonies from experts at Brightside Community Homes Foundation, Catalyst Community Developments Society, and Concert Properties, this guide discusses a range of strategies that landlords and housing operators can initiate, from simply providing a supportive environment to proactively taking leadership.

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.

Benefits of strong resident communities for housing operators 

Housing operators can play a significant role in helping improve the conditions for spontaneous social connections to occur between residents by intentionally providing resources or implementing initiatives that foster vibrant, neighbourly communities. Some of the reported benefits for housing operators include:

  • Greater sense of belonging, pride, and care for property among residents.
  • Reduced operating costs related to disturbances and conflicts in buildings.
  • Reduced turnover, vacancy, vandalism, and maintenance.
  • Strengthened connections between vulnerable residents and community service providers.
  • Safer buildings and higher staff satisfaction.
  • Market advantage—buildings become more desirable to prospective residents.
  • Improved brand equity and increased attractiveness to institutional investors.
  • Greater support from municipal governments that promote social cohesion.

“When an organization’s core values include a commitment to creating beautiful, affordable homes with vibrant resident communities, it sets a higher bar than aiming for just affordable housing alone. It says something about how you feel about people and about what your residents deserve.”

— Maura Chestnutt, former VP of Operations and Strategic Initiatives, Catalyst Community Developments Society

Surveying residents to develop strategies for community building: Spotlight on Brightside

Brightside Community Homes Foundation is a non-profit housing operator and developer with almost all of its current 750 units offered at rent-geared-to-income rates. Although their buildings are for independent living, they have a high proportion of seniors (76%), along with residents with disability, and young families.

Understanding and engaging with their residents has long been a part of Brightside’s strategic plan, deeply informed by principles of Asset-based Community Development—working from the basis of people’s strengths and passions, and guided by the philosophy of “nothing about us without us.”

Brightside therefore works to include residents in the planning and implementation of activities intended to serve them—and Brightside’s regular Community Enhancement Survey of residents is where that process begins.

“Our annual resident survey informs the work of the whole Community Development and Resident Support department,” said Liam Griffin, Communications and Partnerships Manager at Brightside. “The survey has been really helpful to understand who our residents are and what their needs are, and to see the impacts of our community-building efforts over time.” Griffin said the surveys also yield “hard data” that helps Brightside advocate more effectively with government and funders.

For providing services and implementing social programs, Brightside often focuses its efforts on fostering partnerships with other non-profit community organizations and government agencies. (see Guide 3: Developing Organizational Partnerships to Build Community in Multi-Unit Housing).

Two people stand side by side outside of a multi-unit building beside a bench.
Photo provided by Brightside Community Homes Foundation.

Implementing an in-house program to build community: Spotlight on Concert Properties

Since its founding in 1989, Concert Properties has been a real estate company operating with a bigger vision of its role in promoting social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

“Concert started with the idea of building affordable rental housing, using only union-based trades to ensure high quality jobs for hardworking Canadians while providing good homes close to the services they used and jobs they held,” explained Dave Ramslie, former Vice President of Innovation & Sustainability. “Concert views itself as not just a developer and landlord, but as a community builder.”

Concert developed a Sustainability Framework to specifically emphasize and further their efforts to “foster resilient and inclusive communities” in their buildings. The company participated in the City of Vancouver’s Hey Neighbour! pilot project and developed and tested a “Community Connectors” program.

After hiring a Social Sustainability Coordinator, Concert expanded their Community Connectors program to more buildings, and partnered with Happy Cities and the Hey Neighbour Collective to conduct surveys of residents about their social connectedness, generate ideas for community activities, and measure changes over time.

The Social Sustainability Coordinator did outreach to residents and encouraged them to apply to become Community Connectors for their buildings. Selected residents were then offered free trainings and toolkits, and given monthly honoraria to acknowledge their efforts in connecting with their neighbours, learning about resident interests, and taking leadership in organizing social events and activities. Concert also authorized their building managers to give assistance to these resident leaders. As of 2022, eighteen resident champions across eleven Concert rental buildings in British Columbia had helped launch a myriad of activities (for more about what the Connectors did, see Guide 1: Supporting Residents to Become Community Connectors in Multi-unit Housing).

Question: “What benefits do you think the Community Connectors program brings – or might bring – to Concert Properties as a company in the future?” 

Concert property building managers answered

“Concert will be known as a ‘people-first’ company. We won’t be just one of those real estate companies, but what will set us apart is our being proactive with how we can make our clients feel like a family.”

“The Community Connectors help me with logistics for events. I usually work alone, so having someone assist is super helpful.” 

“It may benefit single or elderly residents to build relationships and interact with other neighbours. It could also be beneficial for new immigrants or people new to the city that don’t have a lot of other family or friends locally.”

“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.”

Trust-building and collaborative problem-solving as a foundation for social connectivity: Spotlight on Catalyst Community Developments Society

It’s not uncommon for housing operators to express concern or even a little anxiety about the prospect of bringing groups of residents together and meeting with them. However, Catalyst Community Developments Society took a proactive approach to trying to nurture open communication, trust-building, and collaborative problem-solving—and has shown that improved communications can benefit housing operators and residents alike.

At new buildings, for example, Catalyst seeded a sense of community right away by organizing “housewarming” parties, where not only the residents were invited, but also Catalyst staff, the construction team, contractors, community partners, investors, municipal staff and councillors, and others involved in the project.

“It connects the dots and celebrates not just the completion of a building but the beginning of its life,” said Maura Chestnutt, former VP of Operations and Strategic Initiatives for Catalyst. “Residents have an opportunity to hear the ‘birth story’ and the intention and hope for the projects.”

In established buildings, she also regularly hosted “town hall” meetings, either online or in-person, with residents. “The town hall meetings facilitated discussions about sometimes uncomfortable topics, such as income testing, and a more collaborative approach to problem-solving landlord-resident issues,” she explained.

In one building, for example, a problem common in multi-unit housing emerged—a woman with a new puppy was concerned that it might be barking when she was away, and reached out to others in the building. When other dog owners living in the building heard about the situation, they responded with offers of dog-sitting and play dates. Similarly, because Ms Chestnutt had developed relationships of mutual trust with many residents through these meetings, during the pandemic and lockdowns she was able to intervene and help navigate emerging issues between the property managers and some residents who were struggling to make rental payments due to unanticipated changes in income.

“You have to be committed to creating a welcoming environment through a collaborative process that addresses the needs of the demographics in that particular building,” she said. “It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to community.” Yet if property managers are indeed willing to hear feedback, share perspectives, and make reasonable changes, such efforts can foster a greater sense of trust and collaboration on both sides. This is easiest, she added, when the landlord has a dedicated staff person with ‘community facilitation’ as part of their role, the authority to make decisions, and “the autonomy to be kind.” It also needs to be clearly understood by residents and the property manager that this person is distinct from the property management team.

At the same time, the indicators of successful community-building were often “softer” and less quantitative than originally expected by Catalyst. It was seen in the number of residents attending landlord-led events or other activities, but also in the neighbour who took a day off work to help another who was ill, among the neighbours rushing out during the night to help someone whose apartment had flooded, and through the many kindnesses and supports shared by neighbours during the pandemic and lockdowns. “The real work for developers, landlords, and property managers is to facilitate the creation of relationships that allow people to care for and about one another,” said Ms Chestnutt.

Two people and a child stand behind a pumpkin carving table posing with several handsome pumpkins.
Photo provided by Brightside Community Homes Foundation.

A spectrum of approaches for housing operators to help build community

There are a variety of different approaches that housing operators can take to help foster community among residents, and these approaches are generally guided by the needs, interests and resident demographics in a building, as well as the extent of the role that the housing operator wishes to, or is able to, take on.

“When people are connected, they thrive. Socially connected tenants make really good tenants.”

— Marika Alberta, British Columbia Non-Profit Housing Association

Key factors that can help housing operators foster vibrant resident communities

  • Core organizational valuing of community building.
  • Organizational buy-in and supportive company policy and strategies.
  • Interest in understanding residents’ needs and wishes.
  • Dedicated staff time to support community building and resident engagement; ideally, this animator does not also hold property management responsibilities such as initiating repairs and rent collection.   
  • Removal of barriers and creation of enabling environments for resident use of communications platforms, common areas, and amenity rooms.
  • Equipment, resources, or honoraria to encourage and support residents taking one-time or ongoing community-building leadership roles.
  • Partnerships with other community organizations that can support resident community-building and connections (for more information, see Guide 3: Developing Organizational Partnerships to Build Community in Multi-Unit Housing).

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People sit around a table at an event put on by a landlord of a multi-unit building.
Photo provided by Brightside Community Homes Foundation.

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.