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Brian Johnston, the new CEO of CreateTO, seen here on Feb. 11, 2019, says success in his new job will be measured by how much affordable housing the city manages to build.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The new CEO of Toronto’s centralized real estate agency, CreateTO, says success in his new job will be measured by just one yardstick: how much affordable housing the city manages to build.

“It’s the burning platform,” said Brian Johnston, a former Mattamy Homes executive whose appointment was ratified by city council last month. “I think this organization will be measured on its success in that area. And the city will be measured, and the mayor will be measured. I think everybody’s got the message.”

The inaugural chief executive of CreateTO, an agency set up last year to manage the city’s massive real estate portfolio, takes the reins just as Mayor John Tory’s Housing Now plan is meant to start transforming 11 city-owned surplus sites into affordable housing projects. And to help hit Mr. Tory’s overall target of 40,000 new affordable units in the next 12 years, Mr. Johnston acknowledges he has his work cut out for him.

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For starters, CreateTO staff are still working on mapping land parcels and creating a comprehensive database of the city’s more than 8,400 properties, which are spread among its myriad departments and agencies and include buildings, parking lots and vacant land worth an estimated $27-billion. This is the pool from which CreateTO must find even more surplus sites for affordable housing.

And Mr. Johnston, who retired as chief operating officer for mammoth builder Mattamy Homes last year, says it remains to be seen how developers will respond to the city’s Housing Now plan, which offers incentives but demands that at least a third of the units built must be classified as affordable.

While some critics say that’s not enough, Mr. Johnston warns that the plan as it stands now will need to be better explained to private-sector developers, who will likely need to partner with non-profit housing agencies to make it work.

“You’ve got to think like a developer," he said. “Most private developers really wouldn’t understand affordable rentals. Most would say, ‘That’s not what I do.’ "

Another challenge he says, will be finding even more surplus city land to meet Mr. Tory’s goal. The first 11 sites, he says, were the easy ones, as they include some valuable commuter parking lots near transit stations: “This was picking up gold coins off the floor. As time goes on, it’ll get a little more difficult.”

Mr. Johnston acknowledges that shifting from Mattamy Homes to the city will be an adjustment.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Johnston also acknowledges that shifting from Mattamy – a private company driven by billionaire founder and CEO Peter Gilgan – to the city will be an adjustment.

“Mattamy was an extreme example … there is one guy who runs the company and decision-making was very clear, and if he wanted something done, we didn’t stand around debating it or creating task forces or getting back with a report in six months,” Mr. Johnston said.

CreateTO has already been accused of foot-dragging. In a report last fall, the Toronto Region Board of Trade said the process of setting up CreateTO itself had actually slowed down city efforts to find surplus land for affordable housing, with just a handful of sites turned over for development.

The agency’s mission differs from that of its predecessor, BuildTO, which aimed to sell off surplus land to bring in revenue: CreateTO has a broader mandate to achieve other city policy objectives, such as producing affordable housing. And the sheer size of its remit means it dwarfs even Mattamy, North America’s largest privately owned home builder, Mr. Johnston said. At any time, Mattamy has just a few hundred properties in its stable – a fraction of the city’s portfolio of 8,400.

Mr. Johnston said it was precisely this scale that attracted him. Just 60, he had retired from Mattamy last year, but found himself at loose ends. (His wife, former TD Bank chief financial officer Colleen Johnston, had also just retired.) CreateTO spent more than a year casting about for a CEO before Mr. Johnston mentioned his interest to CreateTO board chairman Dino Chiesa, with whom Mr. Johnston had served on the board of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Developer Stephen Diamond said Mr. Johnston is well-known for his successful track record building high-rises with Monarch Corp., where he was president from 2000-12 before joining Mattamy, which would later acquire Monarch. His practical outlook, Mr. Diamond said, is just what CreateTO needs: “The problem in many instances when you are dealing with the public sector is they can dream all these beautiful dreams, but if they don’t work in reality, what’s the point?”

City Councillor Paula Fletcher, one of two councillors on CreateTO’s board, said Mr. Johnston’s experience as a builder and his industry contacts will help as he tries to make the city’s new affordable housing model work. But she would say little when asked about one area of potential political sensitivity at City Hall around Mr. Johnston’s appointment: the fact that Mattamy was a big booster of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and gave $100,000 to conservative Facebook advertiser Ontario Proud to help him win last spring’s vote. Ms. Fletcher said she expects Mr. Johnston to “stand above” any partisan politics in his new role.

Mr. Johnston defends his former employer’s move, saying the previous Liberal government was “unresponsive” to his industry and imposed regulations he says exacerbated the housing crisis. But, echoing a December company statement on the issue, he said Mattamy also regrets the “blowback” the donation has caused. He said the company’s support was meant to be limited to the election and that Ontario Proud has since veered into opinions on “social policy" that Mattamy does not endorse.

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