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Atira Workers Housing Co-op Was Hailed as Promising Model. Now, It’s Closing

Residents have been told they need to be out by the end of May due to financial difficulties.

Jen St. Denis 29 Mar 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

The Atira Workers Housing Co-op was lauded as an innovative solution to help employees find stable housing in Vancouver’s tough rental market. But just three short years after it was formed, residents have been sent a letter that says it’s no longer financially feasible to continue operating the co-op, and they need to move out by May 31.

According to a 2023 Vancouver Sun story, the co-op houses Atira workers who previously struggled to find stable housing. Some had been living in single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, while others had faced discrimination when they tried to rent in the private market.

Atira hires many of its frontline staff from the residents of its supportive housing SROs, a practice the organization has said helps lift people out of poverty. But it also leads to a dynamic where a resident’s landlord is also their employer.

Thom Armstrong, the president of the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, said he was sorry to hear the co-op would be closing. Armstrong helped Atira incorporate the building under B.C.’s Cooperative Association Act, the B.C. legislation that governs housing co-ops.

“We thought it was a pretty creative approach to the problem of wages that were paid in that sector of the economy, in a market where rents were dramatically outstripping wages,” Armstrong said.

A housing co-op is a form of housing where residents pay a share price when they move in, and together manage the building and decide who will live there. Housing co-ops in Canada often offer rent subsidies to members who are lower-income.

Atira Women’s Resource Society went through a management shakeup in 2023 after a government investigation found that BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay had repeatedly pushed for funding and contracts to be given to Atira, which was then led by his wife, Janice Abbott. The investigation found that Ramsay had repeatedly broken BC Housing’s own conflict of interest rules, and that by 2023, Atira had become the largest recipient of BC Housing funding.

Ramsay left BC Housing in September 2022, and Abbott resigned from Atira in May 2023. The investigation did not find that either Abbott or Ramsay had personally benefited from the conflict-of-interest lapses.

The interim CEO of Atira, Catherine Roome, has pledged to focus on improving safety at Atira buildings and on fixing the organization’s governance practices, some of which an internal report referred to as “free form” and “rushed.”

Atira has three separate entities. Atira Women’s Resource Society focuses on operating supportive housing and transition houses for women as well as support services and daycares. Atira Property Management Inc. operates a large portfolio of mostly SRO housing for all genders. Atira Development Society is focused on developing new buildings.

In response to The Tyee’s questions about the co-op closure, Atira said that its “primary focus is on providing supportive housing to women, children and gender-diverse individuals” and that the non-profit has financially supported the housing co-op since it opened in 2021.

The co-op was supposed to become self-supporting, but “it has become clear that this is not achievable,” Tyler Pronyk, a public relations contractor, wrote in an email to The Tyee on behalf of Atira.

Unlike most other housing co-operatives that either own their own buildings on leased land or own both the land and the building, Atira leases the building from a family-owned company in Vancouver that owns several other properties. The 31-unit building, located in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, is worth $15.5 million, according to BC Assessment. The Tyee contacted the owners of the property for comment on this story, but did not hear back by press time.

Armstrong said that while it’s not common for housing co-ops to lease buildings from a private owner, there are several other examples of co-ops with a similar arrangement. Most co-ops fund their rent subsidies for lower-income members through government funding for that purpose, or from their own rental revenues.

The lease for the Gastown building will be expiring later this year, and Atira is expecting it will have to pay more for a new lease, according to the statement Pronyk sent.

“The decision was made after much consideration and evaluation to wind down operations given this type of housing falls outside of our primary focus to provide supportive housing,” Pronyk said.

Pronyk said residents of the co-op will be assisted to find other housing, including in Atira’s portfolio and through BC Housing.

Speaking to the Vancouver Sun, Abbott had previously explained that money to subsidize rents at the co-op came from a budget surplus. That surplus occurred because Atira had been unable to fill several jobs during the pandemic, Abbott said.

The Tyee has clarified with Atira and BC Housing that the surplus Abbott was talking about was from Atira Development Society, and did not include funding from BC Housing.

The Tyee has previously reported on Atira workers’ concerns about low wages and a lack of training to do the challenging job of managing SROs filled with high-needs residents. Currently, front-desk workers at Atira Property Management make $17.03 an hour; that rises to $17.87 an hour after 1,920 hours worked, according to a recently posted job position.

In 2023, workers at Atira Women’s Resource Society unionized with the BC General Employees' Union, a union that already represented employees at Atira Property Management Inc.

The union lobbied the provincial government to include Atira Women’s Resource Society workers in a collective agreement called the Community Subsector Association Collective Agreement (Community Health) that already includes other supportive housing workers. But according to the BCGEU, the government opted to place AWRS workers under the Community Social Services agreement. That union says that means AWRS workers will continue to make lower wages then their peers at organizations such as PHS Community Services Society and RainCity Housing.

The union declined to comment for this story.  [Tyee]

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