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This B.C. housing provider plans to double in size at a time of need

The B.C. Indigenous Housing Society receives about $10 million annually in public funds to house around 1,800 people. Its new CEO plans to double its size, but some changes under her watch have drawn scrutiny

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An important Vancouver provider of subsidized rental homes is embarking on a major expansion as more provincial money flows into this crucial type of housing.

While the society’s new leader is being lauded by supporters, she’s also being criticized by others for some of the changes made under her watch.

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Brenda Knights, CEO of the B.C. Indigenous Housing Society (BCIHS), has plans to double the organization’s staff and portfolio of homes in the coming years. The society also has a new board of directors and adopted its new name after being known for almost 40 years as the Vancouver Native Housing Society.

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Knights, who took over as CEO a year-and-a-half ago, said the changes were necessary to modernize the society at a time when there is such a “desperate need” for affordable housing, especially for Indigenous people.

“I’m expecting in the next five to 10 years we’ll be doubled in size,” she predicted.

The B.C. Indigenous Housing Society is a significant organization doing substantial work. It receives about $10 million annually in public funds, mainly from the B.C. government, to house around 1,800 people, most of them vulnerable or low-income, in 20 buildings. It owns a real estate portfolio worth more than $73 million.

Of the more than 800 non-profit housing providers in the province that receive funding from B.C. Housing, the society is in the top two per cent in terms of the number of provincially funded homes it operates.

Knights took the top role in August 2022, a few months after the group, a federally registered charity, parted ways with former longtime chief executive David Eddy.

“We have gone through a lot of transformation in the last year, but I think it’s all been needed,” Knights said recently.

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All nine directors who sat on the society’s board last year are no longer with the organization. Knights said the former board members left on good terms, departing for personal reasons such as retirement or moving out of Vancouver.

The society purchased a new, larger office space in downtown Vancouver, and it took on its new name to reflect its ambitions to expand outside Vancouver. A news release last year said the reforms aligned with the organization’s “new direction.”

The society’s big changes come at a time of increased public investment in B.C.’s non-profit housing sector. Under the NDP, B.C. Housing’s annual budget has more than doubled to nearly $2 billion, an increase many advocates and community members welcome as long overdue.

Non-profits that serve an Indigenous community that is disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis are viewed as a crucial part of the solution. And as the volume of public money to the sector has increased, so has public scrutiny over how it’s used.

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B.C. Indigenous Housing Society CEO Brenda Knights in the non-profit group’s new office in Vancouver. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The B.C. Indigenous Housing Society has seen major staffing changes under Knights’ watch. Before her arrival, its workforce had a high rate of attrition, she said, and a review by an external human relations firm determined some workers should receive higher salaries to help with retention. The review also suggested some roles needed to be eliminated or required a “higher level of skill,” she said.

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“We have had to go through, as a result of that, a lot of transition,” she said. “Change is always tough.”

The hiring of some new workers, including Knights’ intimate partner, has drawn criticism. She also hired his brother in maintenance.

Knights is also embroiled in a lawsuit with her previous employer, the Kwantlen First Nation, which alleges she hired a different brother of her partner for a job for which he wasn’t qualified.

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and both Knights and the brother deny the accusations.

B.C. Indigenous Housing Society’s new board president, Larry Clay, said he has no issue with the hires. However, some people with executive experience at non-profit groups say hiring family members should be avoided due to concerns over the appearance of possible conflict.

Asked about the hiring of her intimate partner, Jason Bothe, as the society’s marketing and communications coordinator, and his brother in maintenance, Knights said all hiring followed the society’s procedures.

“There are policies in place where family are able to work here, but there are steps put in place where they report to other people and so they have no direct contact with me,” she said.

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The human resources department, not Knights, would handle any workplace concerns involving the two family members, she said, “and the board has to be kept informed if there’s any performance issues.”

Board president Clay, who owns a construction company, said Knights’ partner “was well-qualified” and “suited the role, so (board members) have no issues.”

Vancouver, BC: JANUARY 12, 2024 -- BC Indigenous Housing Society board chair Larry Clay at the non-profit's Vancouver, BC office Friday, January 12, 2024. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG) (For story by Lori Culbert and Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
B.C. Indigenous Housing Society board chairman Larry Clay at the non-profit group’s Vancouver office on Jan. 12. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Asked about Bothe’s hiring, Knights sent an emailed statement reading: “Adhering to employment policies, aligning with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on family status, and utilizing best practices through a third-party recruitment firm demonstrate B.C. Indigenous Housing Society’s commitment to fairness and inclusivity in its hiring process.”

Knights added that all hiring and supervision are in compliance with the society’s policies, which include an “emphasis on Indigenous cultural practices within corporate policies” and were approved by the B.C. Indigenous Housing Society’s board of directors.

As the province tries to grapple with a protracted housing crisis, B.C. Housing has expanded dramatically in recent years. The B.C. government initiated an external review of B.C. Housing in 2021, which it said was to ensure the agency could “deliver its expanded budget and mandate” at a time of “rapid growth of the Crown corporation.”

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The review criticized some of B.C. Housing’s practices, and soon after its release in June 2022, the province dismissed and replaced the agency’s entire board of directors.

Last year, an investigation found “mismanagement related to a conflict of interest” between B.C. Housing’s former CEO and his spouse, the former head of Atira.

Following last year’s revelations of alleged conflicts between B.C. Housing and Atira, this is a time when non-profit executives should exercise extra care to avoid any perceived conflicts, said Kathy Stinson, who was CEO of the Victoria-based housing organization the Cool Aid Society from 2005 to 2023.

“As a former CEO, I wouldn’t even think about hiring a close family member,” Stinson said. “It has the absolute potential to cause tension within an organization.”

Stinson said she doesn’t know the details about BCIHS’s recent changes, but said the society has done “incredibly important work” over the years helping address the housing crisis.

Hiring relatives isn’t standard in the non-profit housing sector, and can make it “more difficult for the organization,” said Allen Garr, former chairman of the board of the PHS Community Services Society, another major-affordable housing operator in Vancouver.

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Knights’ former employer has raised concerns, in court filings, about her awarding a work contract to a relative when she was CEO of the Kwantlen First Nation’s economic development arm.

That litigation was launched by Knights in January 2023, five months after she took the job at BCIHS. Knights accused Kwantlen First Nation, where she worked from 2010 until April 2022, of mounting a campaign to undermine and humiliate her, and “cause her to resign.” Knights is seeking damages for wrongful dismissal.

Kwantlen First Nation responded in court, disputing Knights’ allegations, and filing a counterclaim alleging that while CEO she inappropriately skipped over an experienced consultant to award a $30,000 contract to her partner’s brother, Richard Bothe, who, the employer alleged, had no expertise in the specified field. Kwantlen alleged Knights’ conduct posed an “undisclosed conflict of interest,” and sought damages of their own.

Kwantlen First Nation representatives didn’t respond to Postmedia’s requests for comment.

In his own response, Richard Bothe denied Kwantlen’s allegations that he wasn’t qualified and that his work was “deficient.”

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His response also argues Kwantlen’s counterclaim should be dismissed because the alleged breaches occurred more than two years earlier, and therefore fall outside the limitation period for such a claim.

Richard Bothe didn’t reply to a request for comment sent through his lawyer.

Asked about her former employer’s allegations, Knights said she couldn’t discuss the matter while it’s before the courts. She added that the lawsuit felt personal because she is a member of the Kwantlen First Nation, as are her mother and other relatives.

“I do hope to come to a positive resolution,” she said. “It’s been difficult, it really has. Personally hurtful. But I just look to getting it resolved and moving forward. And just happy to be landed in a place where I have a great board with lots of support and good governance.”

Former B.C. Indigenous Housing Society board member, Kelvyn van Esch said he supported Knights through her first six months on the job, and left because of his own time constraints.

“I’m quite proud of the work we did and the good place the society has gone,” said van Esch, who works for the First Nations Health Authority.

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A rendering of the proposed Cohen Block project, a proposed redevelopment of the Army & Navy flagship property on West Cordova Street in Vancouver. The Indigenous Housing Society has been announced as the service-provider for the development’s non-market housing. Photo by Rendering by MGA – Michael Green /sun

Knights is overseeing considerable expansion at the society. It has been named as the service-provider for new housing in the proposed redevelopment of the Downtown Eastside’s former Army & Navy building in Vancouver, as well as for a 300-unit project being planned for Burnaby, and for a 109-unit supportive housing development in east Vancouver.

Knights said there would be an announcement soon about her society’s involvement in another new affordable building.

Most tenants in the society’s buildings pay affordable rents geared to their income. Some buildings serve specific groups, such as low-income seniors, youth struggling with addictions, women fleeing violence and people at risk of homelessness who are living in a single-room-occupancy hotel.

Currently, not all tenants in the society’s buildings are Indigenous, but Knights wants to change its policies so that when units become available, they will go only to Indigenous tenants.

Knights also plans to support residents with culturally trained staff and Indigenous leaders, something “tenants were feeling that was lacking before,” she said.

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Some in the non-profit sector expressed confidence in Knights and her new direction for the organization.

Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Management Housing Association, which provides financial and operational oversight of the society, said in a statement: “Ms. Knights is a highly engaged CEO, and the recent changes at BCIHS align with their expansive and growing operation of much-needed Indigenous housing and services across various Lower Mainland communities.”

B.C. Housing sent a statement saying it was “aware of the changes” at BCIHS, and the agency looks forward “to continuing to work with the organization” both on existing projects and any future proposals the society submits for funding consideration.

Some BCIHS tenants have been happy about recent changes, said Kelly White, who has lived for more than 30 years in one of the society’s buildings in east Vancouver. Building maintenance had been declining over the past decade or so, White said, but she has seen more repairs in the past year.

The new building managers seem responsive and caring, White said, “and they’re finally getting things done now.”

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Knights says that going forward, her focus is on the tenants.

“I’m in a position where I can make a difference and have a voice. And so I take that responsibility very seriously,” Knights said. “At the end of the day, our goal here is to serve our tenants. And so we have a responsibility to them to do the best we can with what we have, and provide them with the best service possible.”

With research by Postmedia News librarian Carolyn Soltau

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