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BC Housing Conflict Concerns Were Reported Years Ago, Ex-Employees Say

Despite rules, former CEO directed staff to fund his spouse’s housing agency, they allege.

Jen St. Denis 21 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Two former BC Housing employees say the former CEO of BC Housing repeatedly directed them to provide funding to a non-profit housing agency run by his wife.

And the concerns were raised with the Crown corporation board chair as early as 2010, they said.

The employees claim Shayne Ramsay repeatedly violated conflict of interest rules in regard to Atira Women's Resource Society, a housing provider headed by his spouse, Janice Abbott, that has received hundreds of millions in government funding since 2010. 

A conflict of interest protocol was supposed to ensure Ramsay was not involved in any way with discussions on Atira after the two married in 2010.

The former workers, who only agreed to speak to The Tyee under condition of anonymity because they fear career repercussions, said Ramsay's involvement was an open secret at the Crown corporation.

One said he was called to Ramsay’s office and the then-CEO said, “‘I want to talk to you about something,’ and then it was, ‘This meeting never happened,’” said one employee. “If it was a meeting and he was going to bring up Atira, it was ‘this meeting never happened.’”

The former board chair Brenda Eaton had been alerted to the conflict violations in 2011 and former housing minister Selina Robinson was told in 2017, they said.

Instead, senior employees who spoke up about the conflict of interest concerns were fired or pushed out of BC Housing, say the two former employees, who worked at the Crown corporation in the early 2010s. The employees say they worked in management jobs.

One of the former employees said the issues at BC Housing are well known throughout the province’s close-knit housing sector. “Everybody knew it. Everybody felt it.”

Neither Ramsay nor Abbott responded to requests for comment sent by The Tyee by phone and email.

The former employees are coming forward in the midst of turmoil at BC Housing.

The Crown corporation is undergoing a forensic audit ordered by Premier David Eby. Ramsay stepped down in September, following a critical review of BC Housing that identified issues with how supportive housing projects are selected.

Ramsay said the reason he was leaving was that he no longer felt he could solve the housing problems facing the province and was alarmed by increasing violence.

The government fired the entire board of the Crown corporation in July.

The Tyee has previously reported on similar concerns about conflict of interest from employees who left the Crown corporation in the last three years. The Tyee obtained a series of texts that appear to show Ramsay repeatedly messaging an employee in 2018 about funding and projects related to Atira Women’s Resource Society.

Atira Women’s Resource Society, which also operates the for-profit subsidiary Atira Property Management Inc., is now the largest supportive housing provider in B.C., despite years of financial problems and complaints about worker and tenant safety in the buildings they operate. On April 11, two residents died when the Winters Hotel, an APMI-operated building that housed low-income tenants, burned down.

A conflict of interest protocol has been in place since Ramsay and Abbott, who has been the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society since 1992, married. Ramsay was CEO of BC Housing between 2000 and 2022.

The protocol stated that Ramsay was to avoid any discussions related to Atira with BC Housing employees, executives or the BC Housing board. He was also not supposed to take actions intending to influence any decision involving Atira.

But the two employees who worked at BC Housing said they witnessed Ramsay repeatedly getting involved in discussions related to Atira projects.

One ex-employee said Ramsay had told them to find money for Atira from his department’s budget.

“This particular meeting, it was ‘Atira is having problems with its finances, it’s in dire financial circumstances,’ and he wanted to find a way for us to get money out of our program to them,” said the employee.

The employee said he reported the behaviour to Eaton, the board chair of BC Housing in 2011. (At that time, BC Housing had just one board member.) But after speaking to Eaton, he said, he increasingly came into conflict with Ramsay until he was given a choice by the human resources department to take a severance package, or be fired.

The employee sent The Tyee emails from 2011, showing Ramsay getting involved in a conversation started by Abbott about an Atira project.

960px version of BCHousingEmailChain3.jpg
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An email chain from 2011 begins with Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women's Resource Society, messaging several BC Housing employees about a building renovation. After several messages, Shayne Ramsay, the CEO of BC Housing — and Abbott's spouse — joins the conversation. The Tyee has redacted BC Housing employees’ names to protect a source, who says he showed the message to BC Housing’s board chair.

The other employee says that NDP MLA Selina Robinson was made aware of the issues when she became housing minister in 2017.

Housing Ministry staff said in an email that the relationship between Ramsay and Abbott “was flagged… as a matter of course” when Robinson became minister.

Robinson “confirmed that conflict of interest protocols were in place and expressed her expectation that they were followed,” the statement said.

But the two employees say they weren’t followed.

“It was not just doing a little favour,” said one employee. “It was open: ‘This is what you're gonna do for Atira, I want you to write this cheque’ or ‘we want this project to go to Atira.’”

The Tyee has previously reported that Atira Women’s Resource Society received payments of $839,581 in 2013 and $686,242 in 2019 from BC Housing. Multiple former BC Housing employees have told The Tyee that these payments were unusual.

BC Housing has previously told The Tyee that the payments were made to address “subsidy shortfalls in prior years” and past underfunding.

The two former employees who spoke to The Tyee for this story say they’re frustrated that the serious problems they identified so many years ago were never addressed.

Some other former employees have also turned to the opposition BC Liberals to get their concerns heard, including leaking the series of text messages to the party.

In November, the BC Liberals spent several days in the legislature hammering the BC NDP on what they characterized as Eby’s “mismanagement” of the housing file. It was during that questioning that Eby first revealed that a forensic audit was underway at the Crown corporation.

While the BC Liberals say BC Housing’s problems got worse after the BC NDP formed government in 2017, one of the former employees who spoke to The Tyee for this story said the problems were happening long before 2017, when the BC Liberals held power. Multiple BC Housing employees were punished for speaking out, he said, leading to a culture of fear and silence at the Crown corporation.

An exit interview report recently obtained through FOI by the BC Liberals shows that 68 employees left BC Housing between April 2021 to March 2022. Former BC Housing employees The Tyee has interviewed for this and previous stories have said they’re concerned with the number of staff who have left the Crown corporation in the past five years, especially at the executive and director level.

“It’s hardly surprising that it took a while for the current government to uncover and address the problems there,” said one of the former employees who spoke to The Tyee for this story. The conflict violations “would be almost impossible for any outsider to uncover — many reporters, auditors and later boards were never able to get to the bottom of it.”

In 2021, Eby — at the time B.C.’s attorney general and minister responsible for housing — ordered a review of BC Housing by Ernst & Young, an accounting and management firm.

“It was apparent to me on taking over at BC Housing that there were organizational challenges. One I talk about a lot is Little Mountain,” Eby told The Tyee, referring to a BC Liberal-era deal to sell public housing land to a private developer who has waited years to replace the social housing that was lost in the deal.“It wasn't clear to me that the safeguards were in place to prevent something similar from happening again,” he said.

“And there was other information brought to my attention that led me to want to do a review.”

People who work at BC Housing are passionate about housing and want to help fix one of B.C.’s most pressing challenges, said one of the former employees. He said the Crown corporation is worth saving.

“The vast majority of the staff in BC Housing are there for altruistic reasons. It’s a tough job. They’re dealing with the biggest crisis and they’re trying to help solve it with the limited resources they have,” he said.

“They’re leaving with a broken heart.”  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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