People in B.C.’s non-profit housing sector are both apprehensive and desperately hopeful about the impending release of a comprehensive review of the province’s housing agency. They are worried that the government-ordered Ernst & Young review of BC Housing, often called a forensic audit in media reports, will subject their work to attacks once again.
That has happened frequently in the past couple of years, when the sector expanded quickly because of increased government spending, coupled with new demands from the province to take on the management of all kinds of supportive-housing projects – a response to the pandemic and the numerous camps of homeless people that have sprung up in recent years.
“We see ourselves as a political football right now,” said Micheal Vonn, the chief executive of PHS Community Services Society, one of the five largest non-profit housing providers in the province. “We’re deeply concerned about how the perception of us is going to impact our ability to deliver the services that are needed.”
Carolina Ibarra, the CEO of Pacifica Housing on Vancouver Island, echoed that sentiment.
“What worries me about the negativity is that they’ll fund supportive housing even less. This is a good model – better than putting people in institutions.”
And Catherine Hume, the CEO of another of the province’s top five non-profits, RainCity Housing and Support Society, also expressed concerns about the review and the public possibly fostering a negative impression of groups that have been asked to address the increasingly high numbers of homeless people, as well as people with severe mental-health or drug-use issues.
“Because we’ve been mission-driven, it has been difficult at times to say no. The need has been so difficult and growing,” Ms. Hume said. “But the organizations’ ability to keep up with that growth – we have all struggled to catch up.”
BC Housing and the non-profits that run supportive housing have become far more high-profile in recent years as the number of projects has increased, often in neighbourhoods and cities that had never seen that kind of housing before. The annual budget for BC Housing has grown from $775-million a few years ago to $2-billion today.
An earlier review of the agency, ordered by David Eby when he was the housing minister, set off a round of public criticism last June when its final report was released. The review concluded that multimillion-dollar contracts had been given to some organizations without a “rigorous” process and with no clear documentation, particularly in the women’s housing and supportive-housing programs.
Mr. Eby fired the whole board at BC Housing and had them replaced by a board heavy with former bureaucrats.
That has prompted Kevin Falcon, the leader of the newly renamed opposition party British Columbia United, to repeatedly attack the government’s housing efforts, saying BC Housing is clearly disorganized and not delivering on its promise. Even socially progressive academics recently called the non-profit housing groups “unaccountable” in a letter protesting the decampments of homeless people on Hastings Street.
Ms. Vonn and other non-profit leaders, who have started communicating with each other more often in recent weeks in anticipation of another round of negative coverage when the Ernst & Young review comes out, say they’ve received a very broad summary of the issues addressed in the review.
It appears to be focused on processes inside the agency, especially the awarding of housing contracts with no competitive bidding.
Some housing organizations have asked to see sections referring to them ahead of the review’s release. At least one has been turned down, while another has been told not to bother because the review does not mention them.
Ms. Ibarra, whose organization is not mentioned, is still hopeful that the review could produce some positive change for non-profits by pointing out that they are operating with inadequate funding for administration, even though their housing portfolios have doubled or even tripled in the past few years.
Ms. Hume also said she hopes the review will help non-profits secure more support as they grow rapidly.
But she worries it could do the opposite if it focuses on mandating more and more paperwork.
“If it results in more administration work, then there’s less ability to be creative and nimble.”