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Rights + Justice

New Atira Head Pledges to Improve Safety and Financial Management

Catherine Roome takes over after a report found BC Housing conflict rules were violated to benefit Atira.

Jen St. Denis 30 May 2023The Tyee

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

Atira Women’s Resource Society announced today that Catherine Roome will be its new CEO following a damning government report that found the former head of BC Housing had repeatedly ignored conflict rules when he pushed funding and projects to Atira, a housing provider then headed by his wife.

Shayne Ramsay, CEO of BC Housing since 2000, left the Crown corporation last summer, while Janice Abbott, who had led Atira since 1992, resigned on May 15, one week after the release of the government report.

Roome does not have a background in social services. For 10 years, she headed Technical Safety BC, an organization that regulates machinery like roller coasters and boilers. She is also the founder and CEO of Pulse Technologies, a health tech startup, and is on the board of Prospera Credit Union and BC Hydro. She is chair of the board of PowerEx, a marketer of BC Hydro-produced electricity.

During a press conference, Roome said she had been brought on board by the current Atira board — the same board that presided during years of financial problems and complaints about worker and tenant safety.

“My expertise is in finance and public safety, particularly with respect to the strength of infrastructure and technical safety,” Roome said. “I have two goals: to get the financial house in order and get to operational excellence with respect to safety.”

Roome said she’s signed on to a contract of four months and then will go month-to-month as necessary before a permanent CEO can be hired.

Atira is now the biggest housing provider funded by BC Housing, despite persistent problems with financial management and repeated complaints about worker and tenant safety at the buildings it runs.

The organization runs housing for some of the most vulnerable people in B.C., including women fleeing intimate partner violence and people with experience of homelessness, mental illness, addiction and profound poverty.

On April 11, 2022, a building operated by Atira Property Management Inc., the society’s for-profit subsidiary, burned down, killing two tenants. Reporting by The Tyee revealed that smoke alarms and the sprinkler system were turned off and fire extinguishers were empty at the time of the fire.

Amy McCallion, an Atira board member at the press conference, said the board is working on an internal governance review. As well, the accounting firm KPMG has started an operational review of Atira. She said she hoped those processes would start to rebuild public trust in the board and the organization.

Those reviews “will shed light” on issues like the persistent financial problems that were first raised by BC Housing senior staff over five years ago, McCallion said.

The announcement follows a successful push by workers at Atira Women’s Resource Society to join the BC General Employees’ Union. On Monday, B.C.’s Labour Relations Board determined that enough employees had signed union cards to certify the union.

The Tyee previously spoke to current and former AWRS workers about the concerns that led them to push to join a union. Jennifer Cameron spoke about having to fight for her right to return to her job after going on maternity leave. Hessed Torres said she often worked hours and hours of overtime because of short-staffing, while other employees said they’d had to resort to reporting safety issues to WorkSafeBC to get adequate personal protection equipment or a rotten floor fixed.

“As frontline workers we know how to make Atira better for workers and for residents,” said Kadidja Youssouf, a society employee, in a BCGEU press release. “By unionizing, we now have the collective power to speak out, and for our ideas to be heard.”

The BCGEU already represents employees at Atira Property Management Inc., which operates 18 single-room occupancy hotels as supportive housing.

Starting in 2021, The Tyee wrote several stories about safety concerns in SROs operated by APMI. In late 2022, The Tyee also reported that several former BC Housing employees had concerns about Ramsay repeatedly breaking conflict of interest rules in relation to Atira. Ramsay and Abbott married in 2010, and a policy was written to establish that Ramsay needed to recuse himself whenever Atira projects were discussed.

A report by accounting firm EY Canada, formerly Ernst & Young, confirmed that Ramsay had frequently discussed projects and funding for Atira in texts, emails and in meeting with staff, and had told staff to say things like “… if asked [say] that is your idea.”

The forensic investigation did not find that Ramsay or Abbott had enriched themselves with public money and it did not find that Atira had misused money from BC Housing.

The report also found irregularities in the way BC Housing had assisted Atira to buy some social housing buildings, including two buildings where the purchase price was far over the assessed value of the properties. In the case of one of those properties, 303 Columbia in Vancouver, Atira had used $1.2 million from a budget surplus, even though budget surpluses are supposed to be returned to BC Housing.

Following the release of the EY investigation, Atira was initially defiant, refusing demands from BC Housing and the government to replace senior leadership, return a $1.9-million surplus and allow a B.C. government representative on its board. The organization also cast doubt on the accuracy of the EY report.

But Atira later accepted those requests.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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