Janice Abbott and Shayne Ramsay are making news again. And it isn’t good.
They have never really hid the fact they are married to each other. Ramsay is the CEO of the government owned B.C. Housing Corporation. Abbott is the executive director of the non-profit Atira Women’s Resource Society and the chief executive officer of the for-profit Atira Property Management Inc.
When their relationship was first reported by blogger Sean Holman two years ago he noted that combined Abbott’s “two organization will receive approximately $7.7 million from B.C. Housing in fiscal 2010/11 through 36 contracts. In addition, the Crown agency is providing approximately $15 million in capital financing grants and $11.9 million in mortgage financing for two projects under construction that will be managed and operated by Atira.”
At the time Holman asked Rich Coleman, the provincial minister who was then as is now the provincial minister of housing responsible for B.C. Housing, what he thought of the potential conflict of interest. Coleman said Ramsay reported the relationship to him “some months earlier” when the two started dating and took steps to address any potential conflict of interest arising from his relationship with Abbott. Then Coleman added: "I can assure you that everything was done that had to be done—and then some. They were very cautious about it."
In the intervening years millions more in financing and operating contracts have continued to flow from B.C. Housing to Atira.
I noted the relationship in a piece I wrote a year ago about Imouto Housing, a project designed to house young drug-addicted women involved in the Downtown Eastside sex trade. Imouto was put together by Atira and ultimately funded by B.C. Housing. At the time Ramsay signed a document saying he wasn’t involved in any of the decisions regarding the project. But that didn’t stop critics from pointing to what they saw as a conflict.
Now, all this week CBC audiences have been regaled by reports alleging housing mismanaged by Atira, SROs renovated by the province for the hard to house on the Downtown Eastside and contracted by B.C. Housing to Abbott’s property management company. They have heard about drug dealing, brothel operations, theft of property by staff, and deplorable living conditions including urine and feces in the hallways and needles everywhere.
While Abbott has argued this is a tough crowd to manage, her critics point out the staff—many of whom are themselves drug addicted—are poorly trained, if they are trained at all; budgets Abbott agreed to are inadequate and her general lack of experience in this type of very complex property management is taking its toll. Atira and Abbott have expanded far too quickly in this area and are failing badly. Meanwhile Coleman says his ministry is investigating.
But here’s the point: while the issue being discussed should be about the housing projects themselves, their importance and the reasons for their success or failure, the landscape continues to be muddied by the Abbott-Ramsay relationship which Coleman continues to defend.
It is incredulous to believe that this has not influenced B.C. Housing staff in their decision making. It simply defies any understanding of human nature to think that the relationship hasn’t seriously infected the whole dynamic among social agencies all fighting for the same projects. In the scrap over diminishing dollars and opportunities, it is Pollyannaish to think the Abbott-Ramsey connection doesn’t affect other agencies in terms of who they chose to align themselves with.
And among even those who admire the skills and mission that drives the work of both Abbott and Ramsay, it frustrating to see that one of them has not chosen to get out of the way rather than make their relationship the issue.