We live in a world where we face unexpected changes and events all the time, yet struggle to be prepared at both individual and collective levels. What can we learn from the responses of community housing operators to the COVID-19 pandemic, to increase resilience?
The COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected global change that impacted every aspect of life and left many feeling unprepared. Every community on every scale, from nations to households, used different techniques to cope. Here, I share the experience of community housing operators during the pandemic. Specifically, the strategies that operators rolled out to mitigate the pandemic’s negative impacts on their residents. My aim is to illustrate the important role of community housing operators and the additional layer of support that they provide, when it comes to dealing with an intense global change.
Before diving into the stories, I sketch a general picture of community housing and its role in the housing continuum. As defined by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the term Community Housing refers to any type of housing that is owned and operated by non-profit housing societies and co-operatives, or housing owned by the government.1 This can be delivered in various formats of multi-unit buildings, single-family houses, townhouses, or a mix of community and market housing units within a housing development. Some of these housing units are targeted for a group of people with certain characteristics such as seniors, low-income households, Indigenous people, persons with HIV/AIDS, etc. While having an emphasis on the affordability of their units, housing operators may also offer programs or services to support their tenants and help them build a community within their building.
Study on housing vulnerability during the pandemic
Four Hey Neighbor Collective (HNC) and Community Housing Canada (CHC) researchers, comprised of SFU faculty and graduate students (including myself), interviewed ten community housing operators regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their practices and the well-being of their tenants. We interviewed participants from December 2021 to March 2022 when pandemic conditions had loosened, and life was just starting to go back to “the new normal”. Our purpose was to better understand how the community housing sector coped with the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of an unexpected global change.
Our preliminary results suggest housing operators played a crucial role to support their tenants during the pandemic, many of whom were already experiencing a level of financial, physical, or mental health vulnerability. Housing operators we interviewed connected with their tenants and were responsive and resourceful to meet their changing needs. The operators identified how the five key action areas positively impacted tenant well-being.
Key actions to support tenant well-being during COVID-19
1. Financial assistance and flexibility
The pandemic negatively impacted many tenants financially due to employment insecurity or extra caregiving responsibilities. At the beginning of the pandemic, housing operators mitigated these unforeseen financial stressors by assisting residents with their rent payments. For instance, they provided additional subsidies, reduced rents, or set up payment plans. These initiatives demonstrate how in times of heightened financial insecurity residents in community housing may need flexible, compassionate, and extra affordances to ensure that housing continues to be affordable.
2. On-the-ground support to help tenants meet their daily needs
Meeting daily needs became an issue for many people practicing physical distancing and staying inside to slow the spread of the virus. In response, some operators started delivering meals during lockdown. In other cases, when someone was infected by COVID-19, building operators initiated other supportive tasks like buying groceries or doing laundry so that tenants could self-isolate safely. Many tenants benefited from this extra layer of support, especially those who had limited or no other social support prior to and/or during the COVID-19 restrictions. However, operators faced challenges providing such services –the boundaries of their support were unclear and/or they had limited resources and staff:
“We were delivering meals twice a day door to door, but we had to remind ourselves that we aren’t Door Dash. We’re here to connect with people and ensure that we’re able to support them safely. So those two times a day, we could ask them how they’re doing and if they need anything like to connect with their pharmacy or other types of practical issues. But also, just ensuring that they’re not feeling lonely and afraid.”
3. Maintaining social programs to decrease isolation and loneliness
In the same way as they affected society at large, physical distancing guidelines impacted social interactions within community housing residential buildings. Housing operators reported that the number of people in common spaces were restricted, amenity rooms closed, and social programs paused. Consequently, the social life of residents was negatively affected. In response to this situation, some operators came up with creative ideas to engage in social activities while practicing physical distancing like playing music and having resident dances at the doorways. Others delivered social programs virtually:
“We did a few things more online like they did an art class with somebody teaching it online and put it on the screen, big screen TV, upstairs, and so they’re just kind of trying to take advantage of more online stuff to come in.”
4. Fostering neighbourly relationships and social support
As homes became the spaces where tenants spent most of their time, neighbours’ roles became more significant in their daily lives. This had some negative effects as there were more complaints about noise or disturbance from neighbours. But there were positives too—everyone was going through the same hardship, and some neighbours became more connected to one another. Some operators mentioned cases where neighbours helped other residents with technology issues, and picking up groceries, etc. One operator managed a support network for neighbours:
“We ask[ed] the neighbors for volunteers, and they would pair with residents to do their shopping; and what happened there is that those blossomed into friendships. So, it became more than just me going out and getting you your groceries but more like: Hey, how are you doing? By the way, do you need any groceries?”
Nurturing community and neighbourly relationships are embedded in the community housing model. This type of support within the community was particularly valuable during the pandemic when connections with people outside their buildings were limited and many residents lived alone. As one participant put it:
“What you pay attention to, grows. We were really paying attention to nurturing neighbourliness before COVID, and it has definitely grown in our building. We have done some kind of interviews and data collection and people repeatedly mentioned that if I needed anything, someone in the building would help me.”
5. Looking after the health condition of tenants
Serious physical and mental health concerns were exacerbated during the pandemic which prompted housing operators to prioritize addressing these. One important initiative for ensuring the well-being of tenants was regular wellness checks by staff. In some cases, this was sadly in response to tenants passing away in their units without anyone noticing. Therefore, some staff checked up on residents on a daily basis, and helped them set up virtual health appointments, etc. Notably, some building operators self-funded these initiatives.
“We’ve now introduced a system here that if we don’t see someone, a staff person will check it and we’ll get them either to call us each day, or we’ll check in with them. And they’re really enjoying connecting on the phone with another human being every day. Even if it’s just two minutes to say, Hi, I’m okay.”
What do these experiences tell us?
These examples, taken together, show the critical role played by aspects of their home environment, for some community housing residents during the pandemic. It is well documented that the pandemic had disproportionate negative impacts on those individuals and groups already vulnerable to housing insecurity and isolation.2 3
The COVID-19 pandemic is only one example of unexpected events that loom large in the lives of many of us. Pathways to build social resilience in the face of unexpected social, economic and health disturbances are needed. Our preliminary findings demonstrate how the community housing sector has a key role in fostering social resilience. Building operators recognize the needs of tenants and can implement strategies to cope and adapt.
An essential aspect of the community housing model is its social infrastructure, nurtured and complemented by staff and operators, which mitigates negative impacts on tenants’ lives during times of distress.
We need to ensure that community housing operators have adequate resources to better support those people most at-risk of negative impacts. By fostering a sense of community and providing more than just a roof, community housing has the potential to develop resilient communities that can weather any storm. With enough attention and support, we can ensure that the community housing sector continues to thrive and make a positive impact on the lives of tenants for years to come.
- CHMC (2022, May 17). The National Housing Strategy Glossary of Common Terms. CMHC-SCHL. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/nhs/guidepage-strategy/glossary
- Nasution, Pradana, A. A., & Casman. (2021). Vulnerable populations’ coping in facing challenges during the covid-19 pandemic: a systematic review. Enfermería Global, 20(3), 612–621. https://doi.org/10.6018/eglobal.456301
- Lebrasseur, Fortin-Bédard, N., Lettre, J., Bussières, E.-L., Best, K., Boucher, N., Hotton, M., Beaulieu-Bonneau, S., Mercier, C., Lamontagne, M.-E., & Routhier, F. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on people with physical disabilities: A rapid review. Disability and Health Journal, 14(1), 101014–101014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2020.101014