B.C. Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon today called for an independent audit of BC Housing and Atira Women’s Resource Society, the largest provider of supportive housing in B.C.
The BC Liberals released a leaked 2018 report that showed major financial management problems at Atira, which operates almost 2,000 supportive housing units and received $41.7 million in BC Housing funding in 2021.
Falcon said he had received the information from multiple whistleblowers who had previously worked at BC Housing. He also said he had received a series of text messages that are also a concern.
According to Falcon, the messages are from former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, and show that he gave direction to BC Housing staff to fund Atira Women’s Resource Society, an organization that has been headed by his wife, Janice Abbott, since 1992. They married in 2010.
According to a detailed conflict of interest protocol created by BC Housing, Ramsay was supposed to recuse himself from all decisions involving Atira and was not to discuss any projects or funding decisions that involve Atira with staff.
Falcon said the BC Liberals had texts that indicated the protocol was not followed.
“There are a series of texts going back and forth between the former CEO and senior executives of the organization that indicate very clearly that there's direction being given to provide money to an organization — in total contradiction to what the recommendations of the BDO report were,” Falcon said.
The Tyee has obtained the texts Falcon referred to in the press conference. They show two messages purported to be from Ramsay to BC Housing staff, although Ramsay’s name does not appear on the documents given to The Tyee.
“We doing a women’s only in Surrey? That would be a good one for Atira,” reads one message.
Another message starts with “Just off the phone from Janice” and goes on to discuss at length the sender’s irritation that a Vancouver city staffer said Atira was “overwhelmed” and had “too much on their plate.”
Other messages suggest a partnership between Lu'ma Native Housing Society and Atira for the Heather lands, a large site in Vancouver being redeveloped by the Canada Lands Co. and the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh partnership MST Development Corp. Another message pushes for a food budget increase for one of Atira’s supportive housing buildings.
The Tyee reached Ramsay by phone today, but he declined to comment on Falcon’s remarks or the text messages. The Tyee has also reached out to Atira Women’s Resource Society and to BC Housing for comment.
While Falcon chose today to release portions of the 2018 report done by accounting firm BDO, both the Globe and Mail and The Tyee obtained the report months ago and published news stories on it in February and March.
The Tyee’s reporting revealed that the BDO report was commissioned after years of conflict between Atira and BC Housing staff over late budgets and constant funding requests. At the time, the executive team was responsible for making decisions about Atira because conflict of interest rules prevented Ramsay from being involved in matters related to Atira Women’s Resource Society.
But when BC Housing executives recommended that Atira not be given money for new projects until the financial problems could be resolved, the BC Housing board chair stepped in and overruled that decision after meeting with the board chair of Atira Women’s Resource Society.
The BDO report describes a situation where Atira was repeatedly missing deadlines for submitting its budgets and other financial information to BC Housing, leading to problems when it came to planning for the next year.
According to documents recently obtained by The Tyee through freedom of information requests, those problems appear to still be happening.
According to a 2021 BC Housing report, Atira was expected to have a surplus of $2.5 million on its books for the 2021 financial year.
“Because of submission delays and significant back and forth needed for a comprehensive analysis of the budget, the approval for new positions and increases came at the end of the last fiscal year. Atira was then unable to fill the new positions or use most of the increase within that year.”
Atira Women’s Resource Society is now the largest supportive housing provider in B.C., and has seen its BC Housing funding increase more rapidly than other similar non-profit housing providers.
An Ernst & Young report ordered by David Eby — then minister responsible for housing, now the province’s premier — found problems in the way the Crown corporation sometimes awarded multimillion-dollar housing contracts with little or no documentation on why the decision was made.
The report said no formal evaluation criteria exist for supportive housing projects or women’s transitional housing proposals and “subjective evaluation criteria and decisions are not documented” for those programs.
The Ernst & Young review was made public on June 30. One week later, the entire board of BC Housing was dismissed.
In question period at the B.C. legislature, BC Liberal MLA Peter Milobar linked the financial problems to a deadly fire at the Winters Hotel in April.
The privately owned SRO building was operated as supportive housing by Atira Property Management, with funding from BC Housing. The fire killed two vulnerable tenants. A fire investigation later found that many of the fire extinguishers were empty, and neither alarms nor sprinklers were working at the time of the fire.
“We heard about the BDO report that was buried by the premier when he was housing minister, which spoke about the shortcomings at Atira, the lack of oversight, the cutting of corners,” Milobar said.
“I think the average person thinking, non-functioning fire alarms, non-functioning sprinkler system would be a cutting of corners. That led to a fire that resulted in death. There was no accountability from this government with the consistent mismanagement of BC Housing and its lack of results.”
In response, Murray Rankin, the minister responsible for housing, said that “when issues were identified at that Crown corporation, an independent report was commissioned.” It led to “a number of recommendations… to improve financial management and governance arrangements of that board, an arms-length Crown corporation.”
Falcon — who admitted he’d had a copy of the BDO report for several weeks before deciding to go public — laid the blame for the chaos at BC Housing at Eby’s feet.
“David Eby has been the minister responsible for housing under this NDP government for years,” Falcon said. “And it's his responsibility, given that a lot of this chaos happened under his watch, to make sure that the public has confidence in the system right now. They have no reason to feel confident about it.”