The man who has led B.C.’s housing agency for 22 years is resigning, saying several recent incidents of violence against homeless people, plus the increasingly threatening environment for policy makers have left him questioning whether he can continue to offer solutions.
In a lengthy resignation statement, Shayne Ramsay said the work of providing housing for those who need it most is being threatened, because “small but vocal groups of people are increasingly angry and increasingly volatile.”
The career bureaucrat appointed to the role of BC Housing chief executive in 2000 under the then-NDP government, said he had become discouraged after seeing multiple incidents where homeless people were attacked or they were vilified by people who didn’t want them living nearby.
“While one community faces the almost certain prospect of poverty, poor health, violence, and premature death, others are now unwilling to provide a welcoming space, a space that could save lives,” said Mr. Ramsay, who has lived in the Downtown Eastside himself for 12 years. He also said he was upset about a recent incident in which police shot a man at an encampment for homeless people in Vancouver.
“I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at BC Housing.”
His resignation, which takes effect Sept. 6, came barely more than a month after a provincial government review outlined several problems at the agency, including a lack of criteria or documentation for why some non-profits in some programs were getting contracts.
Mr. Ramsay was confronted last week by a group of angry Kitsilano residents over his presentation to city council over a social-housing project in that area. They were angry at him for denouncing NIMBYs and misinformation as he pleaded with council to approve the project. (It was eventually approved, with conditions, in an 8-3 vote.)
In his statement, Mr. Ramsay referred to the confrontation as one of the recent disturbing events that tipped the scale for him.
“Security at the City have since advised that after reviewing the video footage, they believe the swarming and threatened punch amounted to assault,” he wrote. “This time it was angry words and a fist, next time it could be worse.”
Mr. Ramsay said in his statement he’s been watching with growing alarm at violence perpetrated against homeless people. He said “something shifted” for him in May as he watched police converge on a Downtown Eastside park where a man lay fatally stabbed, an incident that occurred just minutes after Mr. Ramsay had left the area while walking his dog.
Over the past week, he noted, people who were homeless and formerly homeless died during a six-hour string of killings in suburban Langley, B.C. In another incident, a woman was intentionally lit on fire just a block from where Mr. Ramsay lives.
“These incidents are not isolated, nor are they the only incidents that have caused me to lay awake at night,” Mr. Ramsay wrote.
Still, his resignation was a surprise to some and prompted an outpouring of praise for his work from former Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation CEO Evan Siddall, many from B.C.’s non-profit housing sector, the occasional BC Housing resident, and current and former politicians.
“His impact cannot be overstated and I want to thank him for his tireless advocacy,” said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who said that thousands of people in B.C. had been provided with safe homes because of Mr. Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay’s imminent departure also prompted worries about where the agency will go now.
“Shayne grew into being the most accomplished housing CEO in the country,” said Thom Armstrong, the CEO of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. for almost the same period as Mr. Ramsay. “He’s done more in the way of housing outcomes than anyone else. I always thought of him as a housing activist in bureaucratic clothes. This is really a significant day – this is going to change the fact of how housing gets built in B.C.”
Mr. Armstrong said his concern now is that the province will put someone in charge of the agency who is only concerned about budget efficiency.
“And if the place is going to be run by accountants, they have no chance of achieving their outcomes.”
Others welcomed the news, saying Mr. Ramsay and his agency had run roughshod over neighbours expressing legitimate concerns about social housing being built near them.
BC Housing has been subject to public scrutiny lately, as the NDP government set out on an aggressive mission of building massive amounts of new affordable housing and tackling visible homelessness in many communities.
That has led to tussles between the province and local residents in many communities, from Grand Forks, Penticton and Maple Ridge to, recently, the upscale neighbourhood of Kitsilano in Vancouver.
As well, some NDP politicians and government bureaucrats got concerned about how BC Housing was managing a huge expansion in its mandate and budget, which ballooned from $785-million in 2017-18 to $2.247-billion for 2022-23.
A provincial review by the accounting firm Ernst & Young identified a number of problems in the agency, some as unremarkable as having inadequate information-technology systems, some more serious, involving contracts that were signed with various non-profit housing groups where there was no documentation about how and why decisions were made.
Shortly after that review was made public, then-housing minister David Eby announced he was replacing the entire board at BC Housing. The replacements were largely former deputy ministers and bureaucrats with financial expertise, as compared with the previous board appointed by the NDP’s Selina Robinson, who had more of a background in housing advocacy.
The agency has seen a lot of resignations of senior managers in the past couple of years, some frustrated by increasing controls on their work by the Treasury Board, which was making it hard to get real estate purchases done. Others were frustrated by internal tensions.
Mr. Armstrong acknowledged that Mr. Ramsay had “really driven an equity and inclusion agenda” and that had made some people in the agency uncomfortable.
After the NDP formed government in 2017, BC Housing was given the mandate to build 29,000 of the 114,000 “affordable” homes in the next decade that had been promised in the campaign.
In recent years, Mr. Ramsay’s team has handed out contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars.
BC Housing also went on an aggressive campaign during the pandemic to buy hotels and motels to house homeless people – something that set off sharp backlashes in some communities.
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