Two former B.C. Housing board members are defending the Crown corporation against accusations of mismanagement, saying the housing agency is being used as a political football and that could stall badly needed housing projects.
“There’s no fire at B.C. Housing,” said former board chair Cassie Doyle, speaking publicly for the first time since Premier David Eby abruptly fired the entire B.C. Housing board of directors. “I think it’s all about politics. The idea that somehow we were off mismanaging … the oversight was very thorough.”
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Eby, who was then minister responsible for housing, dismissed the board in July. That followed an Ernst & Young audit which found a lack of transparency around how B.C. Housing awards grants and insufficient records on the purchase of multi-million dollar properties. That raised concerns about favouritism, allegations of conflicts of interest and questions about why some agencies got government cash while others did not.
Doyle said the issues identified in the audit are “very much reflective of a fast-growing organization” trying to carry out the B.C. NDP’s ambitious social housing plan.
That was corroborated by another former board member, Perry Staniscia, who insists the board was working with B.C. Housing executives and ministry officials to address the concerns raised by the Ernst & Young audit when Eby suddenly dismissed them.
Staniscia is concerned that with the new board of directors, which includes former high-level bureaucrats with legal and accounting experience, “the pendulum is going to swing slightly the other way to become risk averse and everything will stop.”
Eby last week revealed a forensic audit of B.C. Housing is underway. He ordered the audit in July, just before he stepped down to run for the B.C. NDP leadership, with terms of reference asking for a “risk-based analysis of cash outflows to selected housing providers” with a view to “considering potential fraud risks.”
B.C. Housing has a $2-billion annual budget — it was $782 million in 2017 under the previous Liberal government — and is responsible for funding and overseeing hundreds of affordable housing projects. It provides loans to the private sector to build housing and funding to non-profits to operate the buildings, some of which include services such as supervised consumption sites and addiction and mental health supports.
The housing agency spent $221 million to buy nine vacant motels in 2020 and 2021 to provide shelter for people who were living in encampments in Vancouver and Victoria.
Both Doyle and Staniscia said B.C. Housing had to work fast during the pandemic to provide emergency housing for people.
In some cases, when B.C. Housing was desperately searching for a non-profit agency to operate a recently purchased motel, there wasn’t enough time to do a full request for proposals, Doyle said, “because we had very strict marching orders from the cabinet of the day.”
As a result, B.C. Housing often turns to trusted partners to operate housing projects, she said. To some, that could look like favouritism, but Doyle said it’s more a case of which non-profit are willing to take on the added work.
The B.C. Liberals have blamed Eby for the “chaos” at B.C. Housing. He was attorney general and minister responsible for housing since 2018.
On Tuesday, Opposition jobs critic Todd Stone pointed to a critical report by accounting firm, BDO Canada, into Atira Women’s Resource Society as evidence of “a stunning misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Atira is a Vancouver-based non-profit that has received millions in government cash over the years to fund dozens of non-market housing programs and social services.
The final report, completed in 2019, found “financial resource challenges at Atira and financial review oversight gaps at BCH (B.C. Housing).”
Abbott, who has led Atira since 1992, told Postmedia News the former B.C. Housing vice-president of operations overseeing the BDO report was intent on finding wrongdoing, insisting that she was getting several salaries from Atira even though the audit found that was not the case.
Abbott is married to former B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, who had set up a conflict of interest screen to prevent being involved in any funding decisions related to Atira. Ramsay resigned in August, saying he can no longer fix the myriad problems facing the agency and is concerned for his own safety.
Abbott admits there were problems with Atira’s financial reporting which the non-profit is working to address.
“There is no question Atira had … work to do with respect to its accounting and management processes,” she said. “We are also expected to develop programs, build housing and solve intractable systemic problems, without the tools and resources, or the support we need.”
Abbott said non-profits and B.C. Housing must be accountable for taxpayer dollars. But she’s worried the political mudslinging will slow down much-needed affordable housing developments.
Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said there are worries in the non-profit housing sector that the speed and innovation for which B.C. Housing has traditionally been known could be jeopardized in favour of “more of a focus on policy and procedure, which I think would be a bit of a shame.”
“I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we’ve seen that chilling effect yet, but there’s certainly hope that it doesn’t come to that,” she said.
Eby has committed to getting shovel-ready affordable housing projects funded quickly, Atkey noted, and “any additional slowdown is going to frustrate the system even more.”
Atkey also expressed concerns with the personal attacks she’s heard in the legislature against Abbott and others at B.C. Housing, which create a sense of fear among those who work in B.C.’s non-profit and supportive housing sector.
“When things seem really personalized, rather than focused on the issues, I think everybody’s feeling like they could be the next target,” Atkey said. “And it’s just not a constructive way of having a conversation about a housing crisis that impacts more and more British Columbians every year.”