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Kirk LaPointe: B.C. says its housing model works – I see cracks in the foundation

One outstanding question, writes Kirk LaPointe, is how Premier David Eby and his government handle the fallout
The BC Housing scandal is the first to surface in the Eby administration, writes Kirk LaPointe

There is a lot of money to be found in the politically laden business of poverty and vulnerability.

And anywhere there is public money, anywhere there is urgency in its application, there is political and financial risk and the need for oversized scrutiny.

Sadly it takes little to ignite this delicate tinderbox, to rupture public confidence and question the very wisdom of allocating certain resources to mitigate inequity. But such are the standards expected of handling public funds.

Recent events involving the BC Housing Management Corp. thus pose an enormous challenge, perhaps an existential one, for the David Eby government. For here is a premier, steeped in experience as a former housing minister, who has identified the development of affordable housing as a priority yet could not identify under his nose in recent years serious breaches in governance and operations of the $2 billion organization that finances housing providers.

The first questions emerged last year, when Shayne Ramsay, BC Housing’s CEO since 2000, abruptly retired and cited frustration with the scope of the agency’s task and the violence in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He didn’t mention an Ernst & Young study had months earlier found significant shortcomings in the documentation of multi-million contracts, nor that Eby has pressed the BC Housing board to fire him – and when they balked, the board was fired.

Once he’d departed, a second EY study under the province’s Office of the Comptroller produced a staggering set of findings. Among them were that Ramsay subverted a 2010 conflict-of-interest covenant he signed in later shifting contracts and funding without a competitive process to the supportive housing organization led by his wife, Janice Abbott, at Atira Women’s Resource Society, the province’s largest non-profit housing provider.

Earlier this month, after Eby and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon called for her to step down, Abbott resigned after 31 years at Atira. Nearly $1.9 million was returned by the provider’s board to BC Housing and a third-party review is under way. Days earlier, Ramsay left the executive vice-president’s job he had only recently started at the Squamish Nation development company, Nch’kay Development Corp., which oversees the Senakw project in Vancouver.

For Eby and Kahlon, not to mention the public they serve, this episode has been a series of heartbreaking revelations that rattle the faith in the system that finances the much-needed non-profit housing sector. The BC Housing-Atira mess cannot help but sideswipe other providers, and how the government contends with this subversion of the business model will be telling in how Eby as premier is prepared to own problems and resolve them.

In his first months as John Horgan’s successor, it is fair to say Eby has fared better than his critics expected. Those critics didn’t expect the NDP’s popularity to persist once the affable Horgan – the premier the public wanted to have a beer with – was succeeded by his more earnest senior minister. But the descent hasn’t happened.

That being said, the BC Housing scandal is the first to surface in the Eby administration, and like all scandals, its handling is every bit as important and maybe more so than the revelations brought to light.

It does not help matters that Eby’s approach as premier has been to establish a large batch of priorities. Politicians too often try to boil the ocean when it would be better to simply boil a pot of water. This issue requires an acute focus, not simply because of its expense but because of its foundational role in the NDP identity in redistributive economics. Without a trusted non-profit housing agency, there stands to be a consequential setback in public support for its work – and for the ambitions and credibility of the government overseeing it.

There are times that ideological goals need a time-out: Witness last week’s announcement by Health Minister Adrian Dix that cancer patients will be sent to, gasp, the United States for treatment.

Kahlon insists the housing business model is working. Inasmuch as B.C.’s public system of providing subsidized housing doesn’t appear mortally undermined, but it can be said that for the time being it is morally undermined. Its rebound depends on a restoration of sound governance at BC Housing, and so far the premier and his minister aren’t shy about tough love. When we are dealing with a mix of substantial sums, vulnerable people and important policy, that’s the only way to operate. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor at BIV, and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.