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Atira Audit Will Include For-Profit Arm Linked to Problem SROs

Atira Property Management Inc. has been criticized over safety problems for tenants and workers.

Jen St. Denis 16 May 2023TheTyee.ca

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

The B.C. government will fully audit Atira Women’s Resource Society and its for-profit subsidiary, Atira Property Management Inc., that has been at the centre of complaints about worker and tenant safety.

Premier David Eby told reporters accounting firm KPMG has been hired to audit the non-profit following a scathing report on conflict of interest violations regarding BC Housing and Atira.

After initially resisting government’s calls for changes to its operations, including “leadership renewal,” Atira’s board has now indicated it will co-operate with the government.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Eby said the audit is needed to restore public trust in both BC Housing and Atira, so “we could trace every public dollar with confidence.”

Atira Women’s Resource Society is under the microscope after a damning forensic investigation by consulting firm Ernst & Young found that former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay broke conflict of interest rules dozens of times when he pushed for projects and funding to be given to Atira, which was headed by his wife, Janice Abbott. Ramsay resigned from BC Housing in August. Abbott resigned from Atira Monday.

Since 2016, Atira’s funding has grown at a much faster rate than other large supportive housing providers and it is now the largest supportive housing provider funded by BC Housing. In 2022, the non-profit received $74 million in funding from BC Housing, $35 million more than the next highest-funded housing provider.

The Ernst & Young investigation did not find that Ramsay or Abbott had personally benefited from the conflict of interest breaches and did not find that Atira Women’s Resource Society had misused public funds.

Former APMI employees say there should be more scrutiny on how the organization operates. APMI is described as a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society. A third entity, Atira Development Society, is focused on building new social housing buildings.

Atira Women’s Resource Society receives millions in funding from BC Housing to manage 18 single-room occupancy hotels as supportive housing. Those buildings are operated by APMI, where staff are paid significantly less than staff at AWRS and other supportive housing providers.

Nicole, a former APMI front-desk worker who still lives in an APMI-operated SRO, first spoke to The Tyee in January 2021 about her concerns about dirty and dangerous conditions for workers and residents in an SRO managed by Atira Property Management Inc. It was the start of a series of stories that revealed problems in how the 20 SRO hotels operated by APMI at the time were being run.

The Tyee is continuing to refer to Nicole by a pseudonym because she fears repercussions.

The Tyee has reported that tenants at the London Hotel were bullied out of their rooms and ended up homeless, and that a woman with severe mental illness lived without a door on her room for months, a serious fire safety violation.

APMI was also the operator of the Winters Hotel when the building burned down in April 2022, killing two vulnerable tenants: Mary Ann Garlow, a 68-year-old residential school survivor, and Dennis Guay, a 53-year-old man who was hearing impaired.

A fire department investigation found that sprinklers and alarms were off at the time of the fire and fire extinguishers were empty.

Nicole said she keeps several items she can use as weapons beside her bed in her SRO room because she’s constantly afraid people will break in. And in October, she and several other tenants detected the smell of a dead body and reported it to staff at the building. But, Nicole says, the body of the deceased resident wasn’t discovered until a few days after tenants first reported the smell.

“They get money to run this building as supportive housing,” Nicole told The Tyee. “I’d like to see somebody run this stuff and be serious about it. Nobody cares, nobody takes it seriously and makes sure people are taken care of.”

Nicole said there needs to be further examination of APMI.

Jennifer Hall Russell, who worked at APMI from 2020 to 2021, said the organization needs to be reviewed from “the top down,” from hiring practices to accounting and record-keeping.

“Everything needs to be looked at,” said Hall Russell, who previously spoke to The Tyee about the chaotic nature of working inside APMI SROs, where many of her co-workers would frequently be on duty, but unable to work because of drug use.

“This is a huge organization, and they’re housing really vulnerable people.”

APMI also manages several buildings bought by the provincial government to quickly house people during the COVID-19 pandemic, when governments were trying to deal with growing tent cities. At least one of those buildings appears to be deeply troubled: in a response to the Ernst & Young forensic investigation, Atira wrote that many tenants in the Patricia Hotel refused to pay rent, including tenants who lived there before APMI took it over and residents who were moved there from a tent city in Strathcona Park.

“This resulted in a high level of arrears and write-offs,” the non-profit said in its statement.

Speaking in the B.C. legislature on May 10, BC United MLA Peter Milobar said “every single aspect of Atira” should be subjected to “a comprehensive financial review.”

“They also managed the ill-fated Winters Hotel, where faulty sprinklers and empty fire extinguishers contributed to a fatal fire a year ago that claimed two lives,” Milobar said.

In response to findings of the Ernst & Young forensic investigation, the B.C. government suspended funding for new projects for Atira Women’s Resource Society and announced an operational review of the non-profit, as well as physical inspections of all buildings operated by both AWRS and APMI. BC Housing also demanded Atira immediately return a $1.9-million budget surplus. It also called for “leadership renewal” at the agency.

After initially refusing the B.C. government’s call for Abbott to step down for a week and promising to conduct its own review, Atira’s board of announced Monday she would be resigning. Atira’s board also agreed to return the $1.9 million and allow a government representative on its board.

On Monday, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. also announced that Abbott had voluntarily stepped down as a board member. The office of federal Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen had previously told Business in Vancouver the agency will review Atira “to ensure all rules were followed by CMHC board members at all times.”

In a press release sent Monday to announce Abbott’s resignation, Atira’s board thanked her for “helping thousands of women and children over her 31 years of leadership at Atira. The focus for the board now is working collaboratively with the B.C. government and BC Housing, and restoring the public’s confidence in Atira’s integrity, vision, mission, purpose and values.”

The BC General Employees' Union, which is in the midst of a unionization drive for employees of Atira Women’s Resource Society, said it hopes the new CEO “will finally address the major issues impacting workers and residents in their buildings, including dangerously low staffing levels, major safety concerns, a lack of transparency, and a culture of fear about bringing issues forward.”

Atira did not respond to requests for further comments for this story.  [Tyee]

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