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Sue Brown and Carol Liao: Atira's walls come tumbling down

The time has come for serious reforms and a new accountability
Atira Women’s Resource Society CEO Janice Abbott was forced to step down after a BC Housing audit found serious operational issues.

Atira Women’s Resource Society houses some of the most vulnerable girls and women in British Columbia and has been under scrutiny for years about the deplorable living conditions and rampant safety concerns in the buildings that they run. Despite this, nothing seemed to slow it down or curtail the millions of dollars funnelling in from the provincial government.

Now that a scathing forensic audit has revealed widespread misconduct and favouritism by BC Housing towards Atira, where the then-CEOs are married, the public may begin to understand the culture of fear and secrecy that Downtown Eastside (DTES) activists, ex-Atira employees, and vulnerable communities have known for years.

Atira has been the largest recipient of funding among the province’s social housing providers, receiving from $17 million in 2016 to over $74 million in 2022, a 335% increase and $35 million more than the next highest-funded provider. It is difficult to understand how these multi millions of dollars have translated into the bed-bug-infested, decrepit, under-resourced housing conditions we see in the DTES.

The rates of violence in Atira’s buildings are unacceptably high - like many single-room occupancy buildings (SROs) in the DTES - which disproportionately puts girls and women's safety at risk. Atira’s private for-profit subsidiary corporation, Atira Property Management Inc. (APMI), owns 18 of these SROs and its activities were not included in the forensic audit.

Even more so, how did the millions - and almost $2 million in surplus - translate into the 2022 Winters Hotel fire? This APMI building had been on a fire watch and had no working sprinklers, fire alarms or fire extinguishers as the building burned down, leaving two people dead and several vulnerable DTES community members injured and traumatized. Atira is now facing a class action lawsuit for its negligence.

Atira has a history of bulldozing its agenda into the DTES with little transparency or regard for the risks to the girls and women it houses. It has operated without adequate oversight for so long that the organization has become accustomed to doing as it pleases. Reports from advocates have cited well-known fears of retaliation among employees and tenants at Atira buildings, fears that people could lose employment or even their housing if they spoke up. Atira’s employees are now wanting to unionize, and ex-employees are starting to go public on the lack of safety and concerns of exploitation.

This is antithetical to the accountability and transparency that we should expect from the largest social housing provider receiving millions from the public purse.

Despite the audit, the Atira board oddly stood its ground in support of their CEO, but last week Janice Abbott did finally step down. She also stepped down from the board of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal crown corporation that is engaged in several funding agreements with BC Housing.

The Atira board's lack of oversight and concerning reactions to justified criticism, particularly now in light of the audit, suggests the need for some overdue and sweeping changes at the board-level and within Atira management. 

We are in the middle of one of the most dire housing crises this province has ever seen. Housing is about more than walls and a roof over someone's head, it is about human rights, safety and dignity. Atira must be held accountable to the public for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent. More importantly, it owes an explanation to the girls and women who have endured undignifying conditions in their buildings, about where that money went.  Atira let them down, it has let our province down, and it is time for its walls to come tumbling down.

Sue Brown is the Director of Advocacy and Staff Lawyer at Justice for Girls. Carol Liao is an associate professor at the UBC Allard School of Law and distinguished scholar of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, UBC Sauder School of Business.