Are B.C. Housing's issues confined to Atira, or does the system need a rethink?
Political players express confidence, but one non-profit says fundamental questions need to be asked
Fifty-five years ago, when the first iteration of B.C. Housing had existed for all of two days, a man's premonition appeared in the pages of The Province newspaper.
"Municipal Affairs Minister Campbell's new B.C. Housing Management Authority is like a shotgun — it can be a highly effective weapon, depending on what it's loaded with, what it's aimed at, and whether you pull the trigger," read a letter to the editor published on Dec. 13, 1967.
"So far there is no indication whether the provincial government even intends to take this new weapon off the wall. But if it does, it faces the problem involved in using any firearm — it can do a lot of harm if mishandled."
Instances of harmful mismanagement have come to pass at the agency more than once in the decades since, as the fledgling commission grew into a $2-billion Crown corporation responsible for social and supportive housing in the province.
One of the most corrosive examples came this week, when a damning B.C. Housing audit found mismanagement and conflict of interest violations at the organization's highest level. The report has sparked a conversation about whether the corporation's structure has become too splintered and too political to be effective.
- AnalysisB.C. Housing's CEO retired the same way its board was overhauled — quickly, without anyone answering questions
Experts and stakeholders say the framework isn't fundamentally flawed, but proper oversight is critical if it's going be effective as non-profits continue to grow.
"On the whole, that system works very, very effectively — we've not had a lot of instances where things have gone off the rails ... given what we're delivering on and the significant new investments," said Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association.
"Overall, it's actually quite a strong success story despite the conversation this week."
Non-profits scaling up exponentially
B.C. Housing was first formed to solve what is still the province's perpetual problem: a desperate shortage of affordable housing.
The new agency was given power "to plan, acquire, build, operate or lease" public housing that would make the most of provincial and federal funding in concert with local governments, the latter of which were seen to be failing when left to get those projects off the ground themselves.
Back then, there was little talk around non-profits being involved.
Over time, the number of non-profits involved with supportive housing in B.C. has grown exponentially. So has the amount of funding they receive — and the complexity of where they get that money.
CBC News measured the financial statements of the five biggest organizations providing supportive housing in the province: Atira, RainCity Housing, PHS Community Services, Lookout Housing + Health Society, and Victoria Cool Aid.
Combined, those five groups operate more than 6,500 housing units across Vancouver Island and Southwest B.C. From 2017 to 2022, they received more than $942.4 million from various levels of government — or roughly 82.4 per cent of their funding.*
Most of that money came directly from B.C. Housing in the form of annual grants or one-time subsidies, but $257 million came from other government sources — different provincial ministries, different provincial health authorities, municipal governments and the federal government.
In five years, B.C. Housing increased its direct funding for Atira by 307 per cent. By comparison, the other top four organizations saw increases between 79 and 101 per cent.
But the challenges of ramping up the scale of their organizations to meet the scale of the challenge, the complicated model of funding and the inherent competition between each group for funding and resources, leaves it vulnerable with fewer straightforward avenues for accountability.
"There also should be some really fundamental questions about what's happened over the last 20 years, really, with B.C. Housing," said Doug King, executive director of Victoria's Together Against Poverty Society.
"We've seen more and more of this downloading of responsibility to the non-profit sector. B.C. Housing themselves is operating less and less buildings and we're moving away from those individual subsidies. It's become less, I guess nimble, it's become less focused and more and more, we're pushing low-income people into these kind of larger style apartment buildings, which doesn't work best for everybody."
Allan Seckel, board chair with B.C. Housing, said King's point is familiar.
"It's [a] perspective that government will consider keeping in mind," he said.
"Historically in British Columbia, we've benefited from a strong not-for-profit sector that has brought a lot of other resources and expertise to the table and we've relied and benefited from that sector."
RainCity Housing said the framework has been and can be successful.
"I can say confidently by and large the non-profit housing sector is working extremely diligently with limited resources to try to expand to better meet those needs and community," said Catharine Hume, the society's co-executive director.
"B.C. Housing is a significant funder for us, as well as health authorities. And I guess my first response, my first reaction was that it's going to be really important to quickly figure out how to build up or rebuild public confidence and support in ongoing investments around both affordable housing generally and supportive housing specifically," she continued.
"Because the issues of lack of affordable housing, the growing housing crisis — that's not going away."
B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon echoed that sentiment.
"The model is working. The reports have highlighted no other concerns with any other not-for-profit group, but of course it highlighted serious conflict of interest breaches when it came to the former CEO of B.C. Housing and the CEO of Atira," he said.
One ethical expert says all Crown corporations need adequate oversight to serve their function, but especially one like B.C. Housing.
"With the urgency and threat of the housing crisis in B.C., it really opens up opportunities for exploitation and corporate misconduct — and because of the importance of both of these organizations' mandates and the vulnerability of the demographic they serve, I think that places a heightened responsibility on both parties to act ethically," said Carol Liao, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law, who described the audited violations as "egregious."
"It also exacerbates the erosion of trust from a breach like this one."
*The information is incomplete because Atira has not yet submitted its 2022 financial statements.
With files from Meera Bains