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Case Study: Engaging with the Chinese community - Unity Housing Association


CONTEXT Unity Housing is a 1000 unit BME Housing Association based in Leeds. Tenants are from a wide range of ethnicities, with different involvement issues for each group. Unity tenants speak 19 different languages, none of which are particularly predominant – meaning value for money is an important issue when communicating with residents whose first language is not English. Housing staff realised that they were not communicating effectively with the Chinese community – they were paying large sums of money for Language Line translations or waiting for residents to go to the Chinese


community centre to get letters translated. This was causing problems with the community centre staff as they felt that they were spending too much time translating letters and acting as ‘go-betweens’. Previous attempts to engage the Chinese community had not been particularly successful and although housing staff knew where Chinese residents lived there was no central system to identify and involve them; these issues were amplified as none of the staff had knowledge of the different Chinese spoken or written languages.

WHAT HAPPENED A key part of the project was for Unity to adapt their internal IT system (IBS) to record and display information that was needed to identify the support needs of particular residents. Vulnerability indicators (displayed on screen when a resident’s record was opened) already indicated details of disabilities or support workers and this system was adapted to also display communication difficulties, spoken language and the residents preferred method of communication from a range of options. Focusing initially on gathering information to update IBS and carry out the STATUS survey, Unity made contact with Chinese residents through the Chinese community

centre and found a local translator who knew some of the residents and spoke the main languages they used – Hakka and Cantonese. This helped identify all Chinese households and pinpoint those where English was not spoken. Staff were trained to increase their awareness about the different types of spoken and written Chinese (and other languages). A flexible range of communication options was put in place, using a combination of written translation and interpreters. The format of key documents (such as the quarterly newsletter to residents) was also changed to make them easier and more cost effective to translate.

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The Chinese community is now fuly integrated into Unity’s consultation and involvement processes; including choices about planned works and services and are better integrated into their communities because they know what is going on. Residents in one of the elderly housing schemes are now planning a joint residents’ barbeque where Unity will pay for an interpreter to be present. 85% of Chinese residents took part in STATUS 2006 – compared to just 44% of white British residents. The IBS system now contains complete information about each residents support and communication needs and preferences.


Unity’s staff are more culturally aware and more confident about working with Chinese residents and can use a range of methods to communicate with them according to the needs of the situation. Chinese residents voiced their preference for more information in written Chinese and Unity has been able to provide this at low cost – translating key headlines and details of consultation sessions and events only takes 30 minutes of staff time and means that the same materials can be sent out to all residents.

KEY CHALLENGES The main challenge was to find solutions that met the communication and support needs of the Chinese community whilst remaining cost effective. For example, many Chinese residents requested that Unity’s 12-page quarterly resident newsletter be translated into Chinese but this was prohibitively expensive. As a compromise a new ‘headlines’ page has been introduced at the beginning of each issue, which highlights important points and key issues. This page is translated at a cost of around £50 per quarter and sent to all non-English speaking Chinese households. Another challenge was to increase understanding of unfamiliar Chinese cultural concepts. Housing


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management staff had been puzzled that Chinese residents in an elderly housing scheme did not seem to be as bothered by anti-social behaviour as their nonChinese neighbours. They seemed unwilling to report it and would not come forward with evidence. Staff initially thought this was a communication issue, however after some discussion they learned about the concept of ‘face’ and that, in Chinese culture, it is bad manners to criticize someone in public, particularly an elderly person. After learning about this, staff understood why residents were not coming forward and could approach the situation more appropriately and respectfully.

COULD THIS PROJECT BE REPLICATED? The majority of housing organisations will have the need to communicate with residents that do not speak English and may be worried about the time and cost implications of this. The successful and cost effective

communications strategies and solutions introduced by Unity are very transferable (and could be applicable to any resident or group of residents whose first language is not English)


It’s vital to ask basic questions first about language and don’t make any assumptions about literacy; a previous translation of the Unity HA tenancy agreement used traditional Chinese script - it then emerged many of the residents couldn’t read this – they used a simplified script instead. Ask what residents want – in the case above most residents did not actually want to read through the entire tenancy agreement, they wanted someone to go through the parts that related to them and explain anything they didn’t understand. It’s important to explain as well as to translate. Think about concepts that might be alien to

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people from other cultures - for example; the idea of ‘contents insurance’ could baffle someone from a culture where these things are not the norm. If it is targeted correctly translation does not have to be costly - there are some free internet based translation resources that can be used effectively if the messages/phrases are kept simple and in plain English. Give plenty of notice if organising an event consultation where an interpreter will be present – residents may need time to think of questions or issues that they want to raise.

TPAS case study: Engaging with the Chinese community