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“Green” Resident Engagement Cards Inform AND Empower in California Non-Profit Housing Developments: Interview with Maria Elena Marquez-Brookes, LINC Housing’s Director of Resident Services

Picture_MEM Enterprise Community Partners offers technical resources and training grants for affordable housing communities. In 2010 O’Brien & Company developed a suite of customizable engagement tools to educate and inspire affordable housing residents about green features in their buildings and how to sustainably operate and maintain their home and make healthy lifestyle choices. The primary tool is a set of Resident Engagement Card templates, developed in Power Point. O’Brien & Company also developed companion tools, including a User Guide, a short Tutorial video, a video highlighting some of the universal key concepts covered in the cards, quiz question templates, and an image library. LINC Housing participated in a pilot to show how Enterprise’s new residential engagement tool can be customized for affordable housing agencies and then for specific properties.

Editor: What is LINC Housing and what do you do there? MARIA: LINC is a nonprofit developer of affordable housing for low-income seniors, families and individuals with special needs throughout the state of California. We are located in Long Beach, California. Since 1984 we have helped create more than 6,500 units of affordable housing in 59 communities across the state.

About six years ago I was hired as the Director of Resident Services, tasked with developing the resident services department otherwise known as LINC Cares. At LINC we feel it is important to go beyond simply offering housing and also provide life enhancing services.

With our senior communities, for example, we understand how important it is for our seniors to live independently for as long as possible, so we try and support this goal by providing opportunities to maintain their mental, physical, and social health with exercise and nutrition programs and community engagement activities such as game days. It may just look like Bingo or Arts and Crafts, but in fact we are providing an opportunity to exercise the mind, socialize and build new networks.

Likewise with our family communities, we provide after school programs for children and youth, where they receive tutoring, homework help and have the opportunity to engage in a variety of enriching programs. We hold Family Nights, sessions where families learn about the local resources in their community. We hope that by providing our families with information and increasing access to local services that we are taking a proactive approach and preventing crises from occurring or at least minimizing it.

Can you describe LINC’s role in this project and the process? What were you hoping to accomplish? Enterprise's residential engagement tool seemed to fit right in with our life-enhancing approach to resident services. Giving information to our residents is a great thing –coupling that with the tools to take action is even better. LINC Housing has been engaging residents in being stewards of their environment since 2006. What we learned from our experiences is you can't just tell people to "be green." It's too big. What does that mean? It's overwhelming. The engagement tool was an opportunity to expand on our experiences and break it down even further, making “being green” that much more doable. The tool allowed us to recognize and celebrate what our residents were already doing while providing them with new ideas or strategies they could adopt. And the best part of the tool was that because it was customized to the community we were able to identify stores or services in their neighborhood that could help support their behavior changes.

The specific property you chose to focus on for the pilot was the Pepperwood Apartments. Can you tell us little about Pepperwood? Pepperwood is in Rancho Cucamonga, providing 230 apartments to families. It was a market rate development that we purchased in 2006, converted to affordable housing, and renovated with "green" upgrades including: insulation, energy efficient appliances, heating and cooling, lighting, and low-flow toilets. The resident engagement cards were an opportunity to go back to the residents to make sure they understood how these features worked and how they could take better advantage of them.

Cardcustomization How did you use the tool? For our pilot we ended up customizing 30 cards for Pepperwood. We knew that would be too much for a single sitting so we focused our first workshop on two things: some simple energy efficient things they could do, and creating a product they could use in their homes. We used 4-5 cards and used these to stimulate dialogue and to introduce ideas like creating an all purpose green cleaning product they could use at home. This project was greatly appreciated by residents who were looking for something inexpensive and environmentally safe. We also had each participant sign a commitment card;the commitment cards focused on behaviors or strategies the participant was planning on adopting. We plan to check in with these residents in three months.

How did it go? Really well. We were a little surprised; since we held it directly following our after school program, we expected youth to stay and participate. We didn't really expect adults to come. It was a two-hour meeting on a weeknight, dinner included. We had 27 participants, including 15 kids and 12 adults ranging in age from 7 years old to someone in their 60’s. We had moms, dads, grandparents, and whole families participating and everyone stayed right to the end. People were really engaged. And everyone left with a product they had made and could use at home. (The children made play dough.)

So the pilot was successful? Yes, and in more ways than we thought. The cards were about engaging the residents, but it also ended up being a great tool for dialogue with property management, asset management, and housing development staff. In our customization process, there were things we learned through our discussions with community staff. For example, at Pepperwood, we learned that clothes line drying was against policy.

We also learned from Pepperwood's property manager that she was struggling to get cooperation regarding cleaning the lint from dryers. Since this can help make a dryer act more efficiently, it was something we could point out as an energy saver. Residents can hear the message from someone other than the property manager, therefore, validating it.

What's next? We plan on using the generic cards next in one of our senior communities. One thing I liked about working with Kelly (at O'Brien & Company) was that in working with me on getting the cards ready for Pepperwood she would always have a question I didn’t think about, and she would keep digging deeper. In the end we ended up with some great customized cards and with skills to meet the specific needs of all our communities. We want this experience to last for the long haul. We also plan to use the cards as a basis for a community-specific booklet we can hand out to every resident.

Do you have plans to customize the cards for other properties? Yes, two properties, including SEASONS at Compton, which is scheduled to open in summer 2011. SEASONS at Compton will serve a blend of limited income seniors, seniors with developmental disabilities, and seniors who care for dependents with developmental disabilities. The project is registered with the U.S. Green Building Council and is set to achieve LEED Gold Certification. The complex will include environmental features like photovoltaic panels and solar thermal hot water, as well as accessibility features like wider doorways and hallways, adjustable height counters, lower light switches, ramps, and elevators. A bioswale will be used to filter rainwater runoff and collecting silt and pollution before it enters the sewer system. This is very exciting and we have a great opportunity to customize cards for this unique community.

Do the cards only work on "green facilities? No, there are lots of cards that have to do with one's lifestyle and the choices we make, and are not dependent on living in a green building. Again, it is about what our residents can do. They can change out light bulbs, use green cleaning products, recycle or simply walk to the local store.

What lessons learned would you like to share? Engage as many people as you can. We work at such a fast pace, I grabbed at the pilot opportunity without realizing the extent of the project. Fortunately, everyone was as excited about the project as we (resident services) were and provided the support we needed. Engaging everyone who needed to get involved did slow the process down but it was well worth it. The engagement tool is much more effective because everyone from corporate to property staff to residents have had a hand in shaping it.

The other lesson we learned was that today’s youth are much more informed on environmental issues than we ever were at their age. They are familiar with recycling for example, because they've been hearing about that in school for most of their lives. They can be great allies for your resident engagement program and should be part of the development process.

Maria Elena Marquez-Brookes is Director of Resident Services for LINC Housing where she continues a life of "giving back" to the community, something she learned growing up in a community-oriented family. A social worker by training, she has been a community organizer, activist and in addition to her work at LINC serves as a field instructor for other up and coming social workers. This interview was conducted by Kathleen O'Brien, President of O'Brien & Company, and editor of Building Capacity Blog. For more information on how your agency can use this tool, Enterprise Community Partners plan to host a webinar “Introducing New Resident Engagement Tools for Affordable Housing Developers and Owners” on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 from 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM (EST)

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