As BC Housing, a Crown agency, mushroomed in the last five years to deliver on big commitments by the NDP government for new homes and support services, the province’s top non-profit housing providers also saw huge funding increases.
Funding for the Atira Women’s Resource Society almost tripled over those years. Atira focuses heavily on housing and services for women, and on supportive housing for all. Atira’s payments went from $18-million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year to $52.3-million in 2020-2021, according to numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information request by The Globe and Mail for money allocated to the top 10 housing providers for the last five years.
While other major providers’ budgets grew, as did many of the smaller providers, none of them grew by as much as Atira, which has received considerable praise and criticism over the years for its creative and ambitious efforts to house women in need, build rule-breaking housing projects, and take on the management of some of the most difficult buildings in the Downtown Eastside.
A comprehensive review of BC Housing by Ernst & Young, released two weeks ago, found the agency had grown exceptionally fast and was handing out multimillion-dollar contracts without rigorous review and no clear documentation for why some contracts were awarded. The probe identified two programs in particular as notable for unclear documentation or criteria for awarding contracts: the Supportive Housing Fund and the Women’s Transitional Housing Fund. While the review did not name Atira specifically, Atira is the largest provider of those programs.
After the report was issued, Housing Minister David Eby appointed a new board chair – veteran public servant Allan Seckel. Late Friday afternoon, Mr. Eby announced he was terminating the rest of the board and appointing a new group of people, which includes several former deputy ministers. The previous seven board members were supposed to serve until 2023 and 2024.
When asked why Atira’s budget had grown by so much more than the others, Mr. Eby’s ministry declined to make anyone available for an interview. However, in an unattributed statement, the ministry said that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Atira was “one of the few non-profit housing providers who had capacity and was willing to operate additional sites as part of the pandemic response.”
Atira runs four new supportive housing units that were purchased by the province in 2020 and 2021: the Patricia Hotel; the former Howard Johnson Hotel; the Buchan Hotel; and Veronica Block.
“In addition to housing, Atira also provides outreach services to people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness in Vancouver. The increase in funding in 2021 accounts for the increased need for these services, helping to bring hundreds of people indoors from Vancouver’s Strathcona Park,” the statement said.
Atira CEO Janice Abbott said the staff in her organization who deal directly with BC Housing were asked several times to provide services or run buildings during the pandemic because she said she was told “no one else was willing to take them on.”
Among a long list that she provided were the washroom programs at both of the parks used as camps by homeless people, along with various hotels and hostels that were opened temporarily to provide shelter during the pandemic.
Some buildings were difficult because they were accommodating large groups of people coming in from homeless camps.
“Our arm was twisted,” said Ms. Abbott. She noted she was personally wary of taking on management of the Patricia Hotel because she had spent a year dealing with community complaints about the former Howard Johnson on Granville Street, another facility that Atira had been asked to run.
Other housing projects were short-term operations that other organizations were unwilling to tackle because it meant investing a lot to get a building running and then having to shut it down some months later, she said.
In some cases pre-pandemic, Ms. Abbott said, her organization, which is focused on protecting women, has campaigned aggressively to encourage BC Housing to take over certain buildings to provide essential resources. She noted in one case in Surrey, Atira documented sex trafficking with young Indigenous women at an area motel and convinced BC Housing to acquire the motel. In a case like that, there was no formal bid process, she said.
Among other providers that work with BC Housing, both PHS Community Services Society and Lookout Housing and Health Society saw their funding almost double in the same period, with the two going from about $17-million to about $33-million in the same time period.
RainCity Housing and Support Society and Victoria Cool Aid Society saw their funding increase by 60 per cent and 70 per cent respectively, although starting from much lower levels: $13-million for RainCity and $9.6-million for Cool Aid.
Those four non-profit housing groups have also been tapped in recent years to manage more of the supportive housing the province has funded aggressively in an effort to provide places to live for the increasing numbers of people living in parks or on the street.
During the past five years, three of the organizations who were among the top five housing providers significantly increased the money they spent on staffing. Three others increased pay for top positions, according to Revenue Canada documentation that charities are required to file.
Overall, the increased money led to about 1,300 new staffing jobs for the top five organizations, about half of them full-time.
Atira’s staffing costs went from $16-million to $35.8-million in those five years, when it added about 400 full-time and part-time staff.
PHS also doubled the amount it paid to staff, going from $20-million in total compensation, to $41.4-million, as it hired an additional 300 people. Lookout’s total staffing budget went from $17-million to $33-million as it added 155 full-time workers and 282 part-time. Cool Aid increased pay to staff from $12.9-million in its 2017 report to $20.3-million for 2021.
When it came to pay for the top earners, Atira and PHS both reported that their top-paid position was in the $120,000-to-$160,000 range as of March, 2017, with a couple of others in the $80,000-to-$120,000 range.
Cool Aid reported its top-paid person got between $120,000 and $160,00 in 2017, with nine others at $80,000 to $120,000.
By their 2021 Revenue Canada reports, Atira and PHS reported their top-paid executive at each operation was making in the $200,000-to-$250,000 range, while the next two highest-paid staff were in the $160,000-to-$200,000 range for PHS and the $120,000-to-$160,000 range for Atira. Victoria Cool Aid top pay went to one person at $160,000 to $200,00 and nine in the next range down.
Other housing providers who were listed in the top 10 for funding as of 2021 included Coast Foundation ($10-million); Pacifica Housing ($9.4-million); Affordable Housing ($9.1-million – less than the $10.4-million it received in 2017); ASK Wellness ($7.8-Million); and More Than a Roof ($7.5-million).
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