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Social housing provider Atira gives back $1.9 million to government, launches review

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia housing operator named in a scathing audit says it has returned almost $2 million in surplus funds to the provincial government and formed a task force to oversee a review of its policies and practices.
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Property Management and Atira Women's Resource Society, speaks after giving Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland a tour of a supportive housing project for at risk women under construction that will be operated by Atira, in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia housing operator named in a scathing audit says it has returned almost $2 million in surplus funds to the provincial government and formed a task force to oversee a review of its policies and practices.

Atira Women's Resource Society says in a statement that the $1.9 million it returned Thursday is from the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. 

Friday's Atira statement says the task force will include its board chair Elva Kim and finance and governance committee chairs, but does not mention chief executive Janice Abbott, who was the focus of government suggestions about her future at the organization.

B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon says in a response statement that while he is pleased that "Atira has done the right thing" in returning the $1.9 million, a separate internal review is redundant.

"We already have the results of an independent third-party investigation done by experts in the field," Kahlon says. "Atira needs to take action to address the findings of the investigation, instead of delaying and distracting.”

The forensic audit by Ernst and Young found mismanagement, risk to public dollars and conflict of interest at the Crown social housing provider BC Housing related to its former chief executive Shayne Ramsay, who is married to Abbott.

Premier David Eby said Monday when the audit was released the government expected the housing provider to take steps to ensure public confidence in its operations, which could include leadership change.

Abbott was not immediately available for comment.

Atira says in its statement it is in discussions to appoint an independent review team.

"Having now had an opportunity to review, consider and discuss the Ernst and Young report released earlier this week, the board of directors of Atira Women's Resource Society has established a task force that will oversee a comprehensive third-party review of Atira's policies and practices, including how it makes decisions on real estate matters and deals with potential conflicts of interest," the statement says.

Eby said he had deep concerns about the situation at Atira and the government would restrict its funding, suspend the renewal of agreements and launch inspections of buildings the company manages. 

But Eby's handling of the housing issue and the forensic report were sharply criticized in the legislature, with the Opposition BC United saying the premier, a former housing minister, was being evasive about his knowledge of the situation at BC Housing and Atira.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon accused Eby of burying earlier warning signs about financial mismanagement within Atira while overseeing increases in provincial funding for the housing operator.

Atira says its focus will remain on its staff and the vulnerable populations it has served for decades. 

"Atira does critical work each day to protect women and children affected by violence by offering supportive housing and delivering education and advocacy aimed at ending all forms of gendered violence," Kim says in the statement. 

She says Atira's independent review and a government BC Housing investigation "will help ensure we can continue to do the work that serves this community.” 

Atira says its statement addresses concerns the provider received some housing contracts from BC Housing without going through a more formal request-for-proposals process where awards are based on best criteria.

"In some unique circumstances, including during the pandemic, BC Housing asked Atira to operate housing and deliver services when other organizations declined due to lack of immediate capacity," says the statement. "We appreciate that this may be viewed with concern." 

Atira's statement cites the ongoing opioid overdose crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to remove encampments at Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as challenges to housing faced by BC Housing and Atira.

"We agree that traditional requests for proposals are the most ideal methodology in most cases, but also appreciate the flexibility of the government of B.C. and BC Housing shown in the face of these generational crises," says the statement.

Atira operates 2,969 units of housing for women, children and gender diverse people in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023. 

The Canadian Press