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CMHC president Evan Siddall in Toronto on June 1, 2017.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Evan Siddall, the outspoken housing agency chief who once told Canadians not to worship homeownership, is stepping down in April, ending his controversial and combative tenure.

Romy Bowers, a senior vice-president at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., will replace Mr. Siddall. Ms. Bowers, a former banker, becomes the agency’s second female chief executive officer. The change is effective April 6.

The announcement was made one day after Mr. Siddall took to Twitter on Monday to concede that CMHC’s forecast for plunging home prices during the pandemic was wrong – a frank admission that was in keeping with his public persona.

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“He will be remembered as someone that called it as he saw it. He was not afraid to take strong positions,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. “He acted decisively during his tenure. ... Over all a very active, opinionated and therefore controversial leader.”

Mr. Siddall spent seven years as CMHC CEO, accepting an extension to the typical five-year term. During his time, he shifted the agency’s focus from being solely the country’s largest mortgage insurer to pushing for ways to help vulnerable groups with affordable housing.

He routinely warned Canadians were taking on unsustainable levels of household debt in pursuit of buying a house, and made an effort to stop Canadians from idealizing homeownership. He increased the price of CMHC insurance and presided over the agency when Ottawa imposed the stricter mortgage qualifications.

Along the way he got into public spats with the powerful real estate and mortgage industry. Mr. Siddall told the real estate industry that they would receive short-term benefits while Canadians would bear the long-term costs and called them recklessly myopic.

“He was one of the most visible CEOs CMHC ever had. He was never shy about sharing his opinions and was always ready for a fight,” said Dan Eisner, CEO of Calgary-based mortgage brokerage True North Mortgage.

Mr. Tal said Mr. Siddall would go down as the most controversial CMHC leader in recent history. “From Day 1 it was clear that his goal was to derisk the mortgage market and he was on record saying that he would like to see CMHC smaller not larger, an approach never taken before, and he decisively acted on it by repricing the cost of insurance.”

In the last stretch of his tenure, Mr. Siddall led CMHC through the mass uncertainty that accompanied the first few months of the pandemic. CMHC was tasked with helping banks defer mortgage payments for financially stressed homeowners, as well as administering Ottawa’s first rent-relief program for commercial real estate tenants.

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One of Mr. Siddall’s last controversies was sticking to CMHC’s initial pandemic forecast for the average home sale prices to drop between 9 per cent and 18 per cent, in the worst-case scenario. Instead, average home prices across the country rose 17 per cent last year and continue to climb as homebuyers compete for detached properties in the suburbs and semi-rural areas.

Colette Gerber, chair of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, said: “Every economist has their own way of looking at the market and his way differs from how our board looked at the market.”

Ms. Bowers will become CMHC’s 13th president and CEO. Her appointment comes as businesses and agencies are facing more scrutiny over their lack of gender and racial diversity. Karen Kinsley was CMHC’s first female CEO and was appointed in 2003.

Ms. Bowers is currently CMHC’s senior vice-president of client solutions. She joined the agency in 2015 after working in banking, including at Bank of Montreal, where she worked in treasury and risk management. At CMHC, she has held the positions of chief risk officer and chief commercial officer.

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