Incorporate Seven Resident Engagement Strategies into Site's Sustainability Plan

Incorporate Seven Resident Engagement Strategies into Site's Sustainability Plan

By Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq.

By Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq.

Most state housing agencies have adopted green certification criteria, such as Enterprise Green Communities certification program criteria, that encourage environmental sustainability planning. These criteria include requirements for educating and engaging residents in helping maintain a green and healthy site, such as getting their input on ways to improve upon and add green practices and giving them incentives to participate to help the site meet its sustainability goals. These efforts include orientation and training for all residents, site managers, and buildings operations staff and adding information and instructions about your site’s sustainability and green features to employee and resident manuals and operations procedures.

Engaging your residents is essential to the success of your site’s overall sustainability plan. You need to encourage them to make changes to their behavior and adopt green practices like integrated pest management, green cleaning, recycling, and composting; reduce their and the site’s overall energy and water consumption; and help you maintain your site’s green features. The most effective sustainability plans include goals for resident participation and spell out steps to engage residents in site sustainability planning and programming by: (1) including residents on sustainability leadership committees; (2) creating green awareness through surveys, move-in packages, and environmental and healthy site activities and workshops; (3) “branding” sustainability programming in all communications, signage, newsletters, and blog posts; and (4) giving residents incentives to participate and help you meet your site’s sustainability goals.

In its sustainability plan, Project HOME in Philadelphia set a goal to reach 80 percent of residents in its sustainability programs and took steps to reach and engage residents and track their participation. Using ideas and strategies like the seven described below to get the most of its residents’ participation, Project HOME met its 80 percent participation goal.

Here’s what you can do to engage residents and maximize their participation in site’s sustainability programs.

Train Staff in Site’s Green Features and Practices

Residents, particularly new ones, look to staff for answers to questions and learn about how the site should be managed by their example. If your staff doesn’t understand the importance or purpose of your site’s green features or practices, or don’t follow them properly, neither will your residents. Make sure all site management and maintenance staff is properly trained in operating and maintaining the site’s green features and are familiar with all green practices. Make sure training sessions are conducted by qualified and if appropriate, certified, instructors. Be familiar with the content of the training sessions to ensure that the curriculum is thorough and up to date. Do this for all new staff, and for existing staff whenever new green features or practices may require unfamiliar maintenance procedures or frequency.

Give Green Orientation to New Residents, Add Green Features to Resident Manual

When conducting move-in orientation for new tax credit residents who move in to your site, use this time to go over some of the benefits and proper usage of the green features and practices at your site and in their units so residents can start practicing them as soon as they move in. Make sure you add these green features and practices into your resident manual and/or any house rules, as appropriate, and consider including a Green Welcome Package, so residents review them later and become more familiar with them.

Here are some items to cover:

• Tour and map of site and unit, including key sustainability features, such as solar energy, rainwater collection and reuse, low-VOC flooring, native landscaping, or green building materials. (For an example, here’s Foundation Communities’ map of its sustainability features that leasing agents give to new residents and include in the resident manual. It highlights key features that conserve water, save energy, reduce waste, and keep indoor air healthy.)

• Instructions on how to properly operate appliances, lighting, thermostat, HVAC unit, or low-flush toilets, or special instructions for water reuse systems

• Water and energy conservation information and practices

• Recycling and composting procedures

• Green cleaning guidelines

• Integrated pest management plan, highlighting resident responsibilities, including reporting water leaks and other necessary unit and appliance maintenance

• On-site or nearby community garden location and membership information

• Food access programs and locations of affordable healthy food options

• Locations on site where residents can be active, use stairs safely, take walks, exercise, and play sports or games

• Map of local public transportation system and information about any public transportation incentives offered by site or local community organizations

• Bike- and/or car-share programs on site or nearby in the community

Enterprise criteria encourage sites to hold a green site tour and resident meeting annually to reinforce these topics and go over any new green improvements, features, or practices added in the past year. It’s also a good practice to update your resident manual accordingly each year as well.

Survey Residents for Input and Feedback

Survey residents about their existing transportation and housekeeping practices and their interest in ways to reduce resident and site utility bills, create a healthier site with less impact on the environment, and live a healthier lifestyle. Ask residents about their practices like saving energy and water, recycling, and healthy living, including:

• Which forms of transportation they use most (car, motorcycle, bicycle, train, bus, other)

• Interest in using alternative forms of transportation if they primarily use a car

• Current water usage and maintenance requests for leaks

• Interest in low-water fixtures

• Average thermostat temperature in winter

• Whether they turn off lights and air conditioners when they leave unit

• Current recycling and composting knowledge and compliance practices, including average weekly plastics usage

• Current pest control practices and interest in safe methods to control pests

• Interest in safe cleaning practices

• Interest in healthy food options and community gardening programs

• Interest in activities, classes, and workshops (give examples of current or proposed activities, classes, and workshops and encourage suggestions)

• Interest in serving on a sustainability team

• Weekday, evening, and weekend availability

Follow up with residents annually or after new practices are put in place to track whether residents have improved their participation, are using existing programs or workshops or want you to offer new ones or have feedback on improvement.

Create a Resident Sustainability Team

Assign your resident services director or sustainability coordinator the task of organizing and facilitating a sustainability team of resident leaders and interested residents, along with key and other interested management and operations staff, to meet regularly to brainstorm, recommend, engage fellow residents, and help plan events, and add or pilot new sustainability practices at your site. When you need people to go out and disseminate information about recycling or energy and water conservation, enlist the sustainability team to canvass the site and post flyers or put them under residents’ doors. Try to get youth involved in the team—they can be your biggest champions for introducing change and new behaviors to their families.

Keep Residents Informed with Sustainability Communications Plan

Develop a communication strategy to raise awareness about sustainability at your site. Coordinate with your communications team to “brand” your efforts with a consistent site sustainability logo and include it on all communications about sustainability programs and practices, including your site’s website, newsletters, flyers, blog posts, and emails about the sustainability programs and efforts.

Keep residents regularly informed about sustainability news on a blog and in a monthly or quarterly newsletter. Items to feature include:

• Calendar of green events, sustainability team meetings, classes, and workshops

• Energy- and water-saving tips for each season

• Green cleaning tips and recipes for homemade green cleaners and air fresheners

• Healthy recipes and produce tips

• Recycling and composting reminders and instructions

• Green laundry tips

• Garden club meetings and what’s in season at community gardens

• Green resident of the month/quarter

Hold Sustainability Workshops and Programs

Instead of just handing residents piles of long documents with rules and procedures to read, create informative and interactive sustainability workshops that allow residents to actively learn and offer more than just information. For example, Foundation Communities in Austin offers several resident programs that focus on helping residents save money and live healthier by practicing conservation behaviors. Its Saving Green Program (SGP) teaches residents how to save money on their utility bills through energy and water conservation practices at home, says Emma Starkman, environmental education coordinator. The SGP consists of interactive workshops coupled with free home energy audits to help residents reduce their energy and water use. Foundation also holds health fairs and demos at various times throughout the year, including a 30-minute demo on indoor air quality pollutants and cleaning supplies. The demo shows residents how to make safe, natural household cleaners and gives them a starter kit to make their own. Another workshop is their Green and Healthy Kids after-school and summer curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade students. Kids become ambassadors for change by learning about conservation and environmental auditing skills they can apply in their homes and communities, Starkman says.

Other workshop and program ideas include:

• Composting and recycling workshop and contests with prizes

• Gardening classes and clubs (for sites with resident community gardens)

• Exercise, yoga, and other active living classes

• Shopping on a budget

• Farmers market or other healthy cooking classes to help residents to eat healthy and prepare meals with fresh foods

• Earth Day or harvest festivals with local food, outdoor art and gardening activities, and educational games for adults and kids

• Environmental, sustainability, or health-related movies, lectures, or book readings

• On-site environmental art competitions

Offer Residents Incentives to Go Green

Find ways to encourage and reward residents for participating in your green practices and reduce their and the site’s overall energy and water consumption. Incentive ideas include:

Free home energy audits and energy saver kits. Train staff or partner with a local environmental group or utility company to conduct home energy audits that include a home visit with residents, teaching them to read utility bills, set their thermostats, unplug certain appliances and electronics when not in use, save water, recycle, and improve indoor air quality. Some utility companies offer free energy saver kits, including free home compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) or water-saving fixture replacements so you can make the change for residents during these visits.

Green cleaning kits. Offer or lend residents a starter supply of safe and healthy products, such as baking soda, white vinegar, safe dish soap, or reusable cleaning cloths to clean their units, or partner with green cleaning suppliers for discounts and starter samples to help residents to keep their home clean for less money, while safeguarding their health and protecting the environment by using non-toxic products.

Home composting kits. If you have on-site food waste collection or a compost bin in a community garden at your site, encourage residents to participate by offering home composting kits. Some cities, including those with mandatory food waste composting, offer free starter kits that residents can order, or you can order for them, including educational materials in multiple languages, kitchen-size compost collection bins, and a free starter set of compostable bags that residents can use in their unit to collect kitchen food scraps.

Other incentive ideas. Green incentive program ideas you can either host on site or connect residents with community partners, include:

• Food access programs, including vouchers for farmers markets or gift cards for local grocery stores

• Community gardening for residents to grow their own healthy food

• Public transportation incentives, such as discounts or free passes

• Free or discounted car- or bike-share memberships for new residents

• Free bicycle storage for residents and outdoor racks for visitors and residents

• Bike loan and/or bike helmet, lock, and maintenance equipment loan programs

Further information: For more information about resident engagement, visit the Enterprise Resource Center.


This article was adapted from Section 4.3 of Sustainable Affordable Housing Management: A Money-Saving Guide to Keeping Your Site Green, Healthy & Energy Efficient, by Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq. Zezima is the president of NYC Foodscape (, and a consultant with a track record of grass-rooting and managing organizations in the nonprofit sector. She has worked with food and farming enterprises and food policy organizations in Chicago and New York to promote healthy sustainable food systems, urban agriculture, and regional farming, including founding The Talking Farm, “The Farm with Something to Say,” an urban farming and educational enterprise in Evanston, Ill. She can be reached at or (847) 507-1785.