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BC Housing is responsible for developing, managing and administering subsidized housing across Canada’s province of British Columbia (BC). This encompasses a wide range of housing options and means BC Housing is the biggest developer of housing and one of the largest landlords in the province. Its portfolio includes more than 7,000 housing units in a variety of building types and tenant mixes. BC Housing partners with nonprofit housing providers, health authorities, community groups, businesses and others in an effort to create the best system of housing and support.

One of BC Housing’s key objectives is to promote sustainability leadership within the housing sector. For the past few years, the agency has developed a Livegreen Sustainability Plan that sets a number of ambitious plans and targets that tie into a core mandate to encourage environmental and social change.

As part of the Livegreen Sustainability Plan, one of the housing agency’s key approaches to achieving its waste diversion and reduction goals was to increase tenant engagement through education and outreach programs. Support and development of tenant and staff engagement would be a critical component for driving change. In 2014, BC Housing retained Dillon Consulting Ltd., headquartered in Toronto, to engage tenants on sustainability, with a focus on waste diversion and reduction as part of the Livegreen Sustainability Plan.

Timely implementation

Implementation of the project was timely. Many jurisdictions, including within BC, are increasing waste diversion and moving toward zero waste initiatives.

Locally, Metro Vancouver has set a goal of reaching 80 percent diversion by 2020 and recently implemented an organics disposal ban. This could mean increased waste disposal fees for BC Housing because the average building’s garbage contains 47 percent organics. This project could assist BC Housing in meeting existing and upcoming policies and regulations throughout the province.

The project had three key components:

  1. Pilot and implement customized engagement initiatives with BC Housing’s diverse population of tenants at pilot housing sites.
  2. Develop support systems, such as new community partners, and funding to sustain a high level of engagement among tenants.
  3. Develop informational tools and resources that could be used by other facilitators and adapted to suit similar projects.

Four sites were selected to pilot the engagement activities. These sites were representative of BC Housing’s diverse tenant demographics and were in multiple municipalities that varied in the waste and recycling services they provided.

When selecting each site, considerations were made regarding the number of buildings and units, general layout of the building/complex, existing programs in place, contamination in recycling carts and use of garbage chutes.

The objective was not to select sites that had high diversion rates already but to use buildings where opportunities to improve diversion efforts and/or existing programming were present. This approach would allow BC Housing to determine the results that could be achieved at other social housing sites.

Customized engagement

Customized engagement activities were developed and implemented based on the identification of capacity building, community development opportunities and community-based social marketing (CBSM) strategies. At each of the sites, tenant engagement facilitators were present for each of the activities.

The facilitators’ role was to develop relationships with staff and tenants and to plan, prepare and lead all site-specific activities. Where possible and appropriate, the building managers and tenant support workers were included in the planning and delivery of the engagement activities.

Through the delivery of these engagement activities, residents were able to gain new skills on waste reduction and diversion methods by breaking them down into steps. They also gained knowledge on waste in their own buildings and created a sense of community.

A number of activities were planned at each pilot site:

Site 1: Staff interviews and research indicated this site had the largest number of youth and children of the four pilot sites. It also featured indoor and outdoor space in the middle of the townhouse complex for community gatherings. Activities focused on waste diversion education, roll-out of the organic waste diversion program and community outreach.

Site 2: Tenants living on this site were mainly seniors and people with physical and mental health challenges. A number of tenants did not speak English. Tenants were using garbage chutes in both towers, which would be a huge disincentive for the implementation of an organic diversion program. Activities focused on a communication strategy related to the closing of the garbage chutes and launch of the organic diversion program. This included use of pictures (rather than words) in all communications, which included information sessions, letters and in-person visits.

Site 3: This site was similar to Site 1 in regard to demographics: predominantly families with many children and youth, living in a complex of townhouses. What was different for this site was its lack of indoor common space as well as an existing organic diversion program with extremely low uptake. This site also had a different (curbside) waste collection system. Selected activities focused on addressing the confusion about waste diversion, creating an outdoor community event and providing education specific to youth.

Site 4: Tenants living on this site included seniors and people with mental and physical challenges. Some of them already were participating in recycling and organic waste diversion programs. The building manager on this site offered a high level of support. Activities were focused on increasing participation levels and reducing contamination through community events.

Several factors were notable about each of the activities:

  • Food was provided at all of the activities, which typically were held before residents received government assistance checks.
  • Invitations were created and distributed through door-to-door outreach. Invitations were printed in English and Cantonese for one building.
  • In an effort to lead by example, all tenant engagement activities were planned with sustainability in mind. Thus, paper cups, plates and napkins were used whenever possible rather than plastic cups and plates.
  • Costs for each activity were minimized by applying for donations whenever possible.

Measuring success, overcoming challenges

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Success was measured through a series of qualitative and quantitative measures. Qualitative measurements included surveys where staff, adult participants and children/youth participants would provide feedback on the activities. Facilitators’ observations also were incorporated into the feedback.

Quantitative measurement was set to occur several weeks (and months) after the completion of the activities through a series of waste audits that would be compared with baseline audit results.

A number of engagement strategies proved to be successful:

  • Children and youth activities – Focusing activities to attract children where families made up the majority of the demographic assisted with drawing adults to the activity.
  • Incentives – Food, gift cards and prizes attracted more tenants to the activities.
  • Door-to-door invitations – Door-to-door outreach was completed a few days prior to the event to inform tenants of the upcoming activities.
  • Door-to-door reminders – Conducting a second round of door-to-door outreach on the day of the activity was very effective to remind those who may have forgotten about the day’s event.
  • Activity scheduling – Activities were scheduled one after the other so leftover food was reused and educational lessons were reaffirmed.
  • Low-cost activities – Donations and partnerships with local agencies were used to reduce the cost of this project. Additionally, it was not necessary to purchase expensive materials for children to have fun because they were very imaginative with low-cost materials.

Some challenges were encountered:

  • Donation requests – The amount of time necessary to obtain donations varied, even within the same chain. Donation requests should be undertaken as soon as possible.
  • Large turnout of children – At some of the activities, a large number of children attended. Recommendations include splitting the children into different age groups and conducting more age-specific activities and/or having a variety of different activities.
  • Outdoor activities – Outdoor activities often were the most successful; however, the activities during this project were held in the winter (in light of the project schedule), which could have deterred some residents from attending.
  • Diverse options – Activities where many different options were available with a large number of staff in attendance were the best attended. Developing partnerships with local community groups and having them participate at the activity increased tenant satisfaction as well as strengthened the sense of community.
  • Staffed activities – Activities with a large number of staff and options often were the most engaging; however, this came at a higher cost in terms of staff time and expenses.

Waste audit results following the completion of the project indicated that the amount of organics in each building’s garbage stream was between 23 percent and 46 percent, which was less than the average BC Housing building (47 percent).

A second and third waste audit were completed. Further reductions were noted in the second audit (between 25 percent and 37 percent organics in the garbage stream); however, by the third audit, two buildings were increasing (by 4 percent and by 7 percent), which highlights the need for ongoing tenant engagement.

The implementation of effective waste management strategies and engagement in multifamily buildings has proven to be challenging, but a level of success also was seen, despite additional barriers common in social housing, such as language or mental and physical disability. The program showed that effective engagement of tenants and site staff can bring significant, positive results.

The program showed that effective engagement of tenants and site staff can bring significant, positive results.

Tools for engagement

Based on the results, successes and lessons learned during the tenant engagement activities, a toolkit was developed that could be used by facilitators looking to increase waste diversion and reduction at their own sites. The toolkit consists of numerous components:

  • “Guide for Social Housing Providers” – This guide contains information regarding the “big picture” of what needs to be considered when implementing waste reduction and diversion programs. Topics covered include getting started (a checklist to ensure you are setting yourself up for success), selecting behaviors for waste reduction and diversion, identifying waste reduction and diversion barriers, developing and implementing the strategy and measuring tenant activity success.
  • “Facilitator’s Handbook for Social Housing Providers” – This handbook is designed for facilitators who will implement the strategy directly. The handbook includes social marketing materials, educational resources and a step-by-step guide for planning interactive activity modules and tenant engagement activities. This handbook consists of information on CBSM and how it can be incorporated into a strategy and detailed instructions on how to carry out six different types of tenant activity modules.
  • Communication materials – These documents have been designed to help achieve increased waste reduction and diversion.

One of the most valuable components of this program is its contribution to a broader audience. BC Housing is not only committed to increasing waste diversion and reduction at BC Housing sites but is also providing a free, shared resource that can be accessed and used by other organizations looking to implement similar programs in their multifamily buildings.

Full copies of these resources can be accessed at www.bchousing.org/partner-services/non-profit-training-resources/tenant-engagement-tools.

Doug Schell is the manager, recycling and waste management, at BC Housing and can be reached at dschell@bchousing.org. Alida Kusch is a waste management specialist at Dillon Consulting Ltd., headquartered in Toronto. She has experience in multifamily waste reduction strategies and can be reached at akusch@dillon.ca.