Vancouver city council asked to approve nearly $800,000 in grants to embattled Atira Women’s Resource Society

Vancouver city staff are asking council to approve four grants totalling nearly $800,000 to Atira Women’s Resource Society, as the embattled housing operator says it’s continuing to “renew public trust” after a conflict of interest scandal in the spring.

The grants include $700,000 to support the creation of an Indigenous healing and wellness centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, according to a report by city staff that will be presented to the standing committee on policy and strategic priorities on Wednesday.

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

The city paused funding to Atira after an audit in May found conflict of interest violations involving former Atira CEO Janice Abbott and her husband, the former head of B.C. Housing.

The report said former B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay directed funds to Atira and repeatedly influenced decisions that benefited the society.

Shayne Ramsay, left, former CEO of B.C. Housing is married to former Atira non-profit housing CEO Janice Abbott, right. (Shayne Ramsay/Twitter, Atira)

The probe found Atira bypassed traditional communication channels and went straight to senior members of the Crown corporation for funding requests.

Atira was also awarded contracts directly, “without transparent, competitive processes designed to ensure the proper use of public funds,” the report said.

Abbott resigned in May and was replaced by interim CEO Catherine Roome, who will stay on until Atira picks a permanent leader.

“When the board asked me to take the role on, we determined that we actually had to show up differently as an organization and the two values that we really had to pull on were transparency and partnership,” Roome told CBC News Tuesday.

Atira, the largest housing operator in B.C., returned nearly $2 million in surplus funds to the province and announced a third-party review of its policies and practices after the audit. 

After the audit, the City of Vancouver decided to hold in abeyance all applications by Atira for grants, and to review grants to Atira that have not yet been disbursed. 

City staff say the grants it’s recommending are deemed “sensitive and of strategic importance and each of them require timely decisions.” 

Staff say given Roome’s appointment as interim CEO, they are “confident that the Atira Board is taking appropriate internal steps to address any governance or other operational concerns.”

Roome says it’s understandable that the city paused funding.

“City council has huge responsibilities to the taxpayers around where they spend their money,” she said. “I think we’ve really showed in the last almost six months that we took all of those reviews extremely seriously … I believe we have regained that trust.”

Roome said Atira has introduced a code of conduct into Atira’s existing daily practice policies and procedures, emphasizing that conflicts of interest would not be tolerated, and reviewed all existing operating contracts with B.C. Housing, among other things to rebuild public trust.

B.C. Housing has retained accounting firm KPMG to conduct an operational review, which is expected to take months. It restricted any new funding for Atira in May and said that will continue until the review is complete. 

“B.C. Housing has taken significant steps to address organizational structure and capacity, financial systems, governance practices, and policies related to oversight, transparency and conflict of interest,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday evening.

“We recognize that as B.C. Housing continues to expand, we must also modernize and adapt to create more efficiencies in how we operate. This planning is underway and is supported by government.”

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