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Eby says resignation of Atira housing CEO is step toward restoring public confidence

RICHMOND, B.C. — The resignation of the CEO at one of British Columbia's largest public housing operators is a step toward rebuilding confidence in organizations serving the province's most vulnerable people, says Premier David Eby.
Janice Abbott, the CEO of British Columbia housing operator the Atira Women’s Resource Society, is stepping down after an audit found a conflict of interest over her marriage to the former head of Crown social housing provider BC Housing. Abbott is seen speaking in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

RICHMOND, B.C. — The resignation of the CEO at one of British Columbia's largest public housing operators is a step toward rebuilding confidence in organizations serving the province's most vulnerable people, says Premier David Eby.

The Atira Women's Resource Society announced the resignation of Janice Abbott on Monday, with immediate effect.

A forensic investigation by Ernst and Young released last week found risk to public funds, violations of conflict-of-interest rules and mismanagement at the government's Crown social housing provider, BC Housing, related to former chief executive Shayne Ramsay, who is Abbott's husband.

The audit, commissioned by the province, said Ramsay repeatedly influenced decisions that benefited Atira. It said a lack of oversight resulted in a culture of tolerance for non-compliance with conflict-of-interest policies.

Atira initially continued to back Abbott despite Eby's suggestions that leadership change should be considered, but on Monday the Atira board announced her resignation.

"The board thanks Janice for helping thousands of women and children over her 31 years of leadership at Atira," board chair Elva Kim said in a statement. "The focus of the board now is working collaboratively with the B.C. government and BC Housing and restoring the public's confidence in Atira's integrity, vision, mission, purpose and values."

Kim's statement said she was confident Abbott's resignation would allow Atira to continue its work with "fewer distractions."

Abbott was not immediately available for comment.

Eby said Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon told him Monday about Abbott's resignation.

"This will, my hope is, set Atira back on its path of restoring public confidence and trust so they can continue delivering essential services to people across the province," the premier told an unrelated news conference.

Atira will also open its books to allow a third-party independent review, he said.

"I'm very hopeful Atira is on the right track, as of today," Eby said. "One of the key pieces here is we can't let the issue with the previous CEO and with Atira slow down addressing the housing crisis. BC Housing plays a critical role providing housing to people at risk of homelessness or who are actually living outside, and we need to accelerate that work."

After announcing his retirement from BC Housing last August, Ramsay became executive vice-president of the Nch'kay Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the Squamish Nation.

His photo and biographical information were removed from the corporation's website after the audit was released last week. The corporation did not respond to questions about whether Ramsay was still employed there.

The premier said last week that the government expected Atira to take steps to ensure public confidence in its operations, which could include leadership change.

"Obviously, the work by Ernst and Young raised some very serious concerns about the conduct inside BC Housing as well as raised questions about what had been happening at Atira," Eby said Monday. 

But Eby's handling of the housing issue and the forensic report was sharply criticized in the legislature last week, 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.

The statement from Atira said the provider had also returned $1.9 million in surplus funds to BC Housing, agreed to include a government representative as an observer on its board and established a group to investigate Atira's policies and practices, including how it deals with conflicts of interest.

Atira reiterated its commitment to "open, transparent and proactive communication" with the government and BC Housing, and said it welcomes the opportunity to discuss the report with them.

The board will be appointing an interim CEO as soon as possible, it said.

Atira operates nearly 3,000 units of housing for women, children and gender-diverse people in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

"The board and staff at Atira are deeply committed to serving and protecting women and children and providing much-needed housing," Kim said.

— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.

The Canadian Press