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Homes and downtown Vancouver on Apr. 16, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The agency responsible for housing British Columbia’s poorest residents sometimes hands out multimillion-dollar contracts without a rigorous process to ensure the best provider is chosen, a province-ordered external review has found – prompting the government to pledge more oversight for what has become a burgeoning operation.

The 85-page report of the review, released on Thursday, said BC Housing has “no formal criteria” for decisions about new supportive-housing and women’s transitional-housing projects, and that the factors that have gone into such decisions aren’t documented.

In at least a couple of cases, the agency’s chief executive officer was allowed to decide on project approvals unilaterally without any conditions being set, which “creates a risk that purchases are being made without the necessary approvals,” the review said.

Two properties were bought without any records that indicate how the decision was made.

Last fall, the NDP government had asked accounting firm Ernst & Young to review BC Housing, recognizing that the agency’s budget had more than doubled in the past five years, during which the province heavily invested in tackling the affordable-housing shortage.

Attorney-General and Housing Minister David Eby said on Thursday the review will help government chart a better course for the big operation the agency has become.

“It is now an entity with significant development interests in the province. It can run a bank with loans of up to $2-billion. We need the safeguards and oversight in place to ensure mandates are achieve and taxpayer dollars are protected,” Mr. Eby said.

B.C. orders review of its own housing agency amid scrutiny over funding of non-profit partners

The province is appointing a former head of public service in the Gordon Campbell government, Allan Seckel, as the agency’s new board chair, replacing Cassie Doyle along with five additional board members.

BC Housing’s allocation for 2022-23 is set at $2.247-billion, an amount that not only subsidizes housing for 29,000 existing households and costs for 4,000 shelter spaces, but is driving a construction program that is building hundreds of new apartments. Its budget for 2017-18 was about $785-million.

The NDP promised when first elected in 2017 to create 114,000 new affordable homes by 2028. BC Housing has been charged with building 29,100 of those homes.

The agency has recently been front and centre in many communities, as it pushes to get more social housing built and shelters opened. Vancouver City Council voted on one large project last week on the east side and is currently embroiled in hearing from almost 300 residents about another project on the west side.

BC Housing has earned admiration from many housing advocates in Canada because of its creative and persistent efforts to create new non-market homes.

But Thursday’s report on the agency obliquely paints a picture of a once-small and somewhat freewheeling organization that has expanded rapidly without the needed systems and policies to make it operate efficiently and transparently.

Mr. Eby described it as having had the culture of a small startup, which served it well in previous years.

“They had to be really entrepreneurial for many years. But at the level it’s at now, it needs to evolve to a more sophisticated operation,” he said.

The review emphasizes throughout how “informal” many current processes are, with no clear policy to guide staff, a lack of co-ordination between BC Housing and the province about their goals, an inefficient system, and poor data management.

The agency is “not optimally designed to support the delivery of its mandate,” the review said. “There is a risk that BC Housing and the shareholder are not aligned on key program goals, outputs, activities, and inputs, which limits the ability for program success to be defined and measured by outcomes, rather than outputs (such as unit count).”

Throughout the report, the reviewers raised concerns about the lack of documentation for decisions about some property purchases and some housing-provider contracts, and said that meant there was little indication about what factors went into those decisions.

One of the findings in the report points to how there is no documentation for the process that selects providers, based on qualitative criteria, to operate Provincial Rental Housing Corp. properties under the Women’s Transitional Housing Fund and the Supportive Housing Fund. The report says that creates a “risk that the process may not be perceived as fair by providers and limits the ability to challenge decisions.”

The two programs have been allocated $1.5-billion in the province’s 10-year housing plan.

The report did not name any individuals at BC Housing or any specific non-profit housing providers. Nor did it delve into some of the questions that have been swirling around the agency in recent years, such as the high number of senior staff that have left – more than two dozen in the past two years.

One paragraph, however, indicated there is information that has been passed on to government officials outside the official report because it didn’t fit the terms of reference for the review.

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