British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. Housing's CEO retired the same way its board was overhauled — quickly, without anyone answering questions

Many of the questions surrounding B.C. Housing will remain after Shayne Ramsay's retirement as CEO — questions that, for the moment, aren't being answered. 

Organization will continue to face questions how to deliver on its mandate, with or without Shayne Ramsay

A person walks past the B.C. Housing offices on Terminal Avenue in Vancouver on Saturday, July 9, 2022.
The B.C. Housing offices on Terminal Avenue in Vancouver, pictured on July 9. (CBC)

On July 8, the B.C. government replaced most of the board of B.C. Housing — a publicly owned organization that has had its share of headlines lately.

On Tuesday, its longtime CEO decided to leave on his own terms. 

"I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at B.C. Housing," said Shayne Ramsay, its CEO for 22 years, in announcing his retirement.

Coming so soon after the board's overhaul, the timing prompted speculation on whether Ramsay left fully on his own accord, though people close to the government agency say it came as a surprise. 

In a Twitter thread, Ramsay talked about a few violent incidents that have taken place in recent months involving homeless people in Metro Vancouver, along with threats made to him by members of the public at Vancouver City Hall after speaking in favour of a social housing tower. 

B.C. Housing is the agency in charge of funding and oversight for tens of thousands of shelter and social housing units across the province. 

As such, it has become a lightning rod for many of the criticisms in big cities around the intersection of crime, homelessness and affordable housing — particularly as its budget has nearly tripled to $2 billion a year under the NDP government.

It means many of the questions surrounding B.C. Housing will remain after Ramsay's retirement — questions that, for the moment, aren't being answered. 

Tackling big issues quickly

To those in the public housing sector, Ramsay was generally seen as a strong, positive force, finding innovative solutions in a challenging environment and being responsive to changing conditions. 

"I think you'd find few individuals with a passion for affordable housing that he has," said Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, who described his leadership style as open and accessible. 

"The other thing I would say about his leadership style is just really wanting to get things done quickly … and we saw that through the acquisitions of new hotel spaces through COVID."

At the same time, the external review of B.C. Housing that prompted the removal of its board last month cited a lack of oversight over decisions and spending as inadequate. And while many critics of the agency disagree on what role the government should play in housing the most vulnerable, they generally agree that transparency at B.C. Housing has been lacking. 

"Nobody really knows how decision-making is happening," said Fiona York, a co-ordinator for the Carnegie Community Action Project who has been a liaison for a number of tent encampments in Vancouver.

"Hopefully whomever comes in next will have more transparency and be willing to be more open about processes and decision-making."

Further transparency questions 

But if transparency was an issue in B.C. Housing's operations under Ramsay, it's also been an issue in the removal of its board and Ramsay's subsequent retirement. 

One might note the similarities between B.C. Housing and B.C. Ferries at the moment: two publicly overseen organizations that deal with sensitive subjects; two boards that have been replaced by the government; two CEOs that have suddenly left — fired, in the ferry operator's case

In both cases, the government and the new boards have been reticent to speak about the massive governance overhaul underway and what it could signal. 

B.C. Housing's new chair, Allan Seckel, has declined all interview requests in his first month on the job. The agency's website directs the media to phone a number no longer in operation. 

When asked for an interview with anyone from the government or B.C. Housing to discuss the organization, the province declined and instead issued a statement, ostensibly from acting Housing Minister Murray Rankin, praising themselves.

"Since 2017 our government, together with B.C. Housing, has delivered thousands of new homes for people … as a result, thousands of people are no longer living on the streets and now have safe homes and the supports they need for a fresh start," said the statement, which also promised that the board would immediately begin work to find a new CEO. 

"We are determined to continue to expand our work to provide the safe, affordable housing and supports [that] people and communities need across B.C."

Whatever the reasons for Ramsay's departure, his replacement will have their work cut out to achieve that mandate. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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