Big Dreams and Little Dreams: Reflections on Housing in the GTA and What’s at Stake

Ene Underwood
7 min readMar 20, 2023

When it comes to our housing affordability crisis, what’s at stake?

It is the question we challenged all to consider earlier this month as we kicked off the first of our three-part speaker series in partnership with Generation Squeeze and the Aga Khan Council for Canada’s Future Ready Initiative. Hundreds of people signed up to join us for this landmark event– everyone from local political leaders to students to well-established homeowners living in some of the GTA’s most desirable neighbourhoods. There, inside the stunning architecture of the Ismaili Centre, Toronto — under a glass roof revealing the night sky — we came together as citizens sharing a concern about the state of housing in our region.

Hundreds gather in the Ismaili Centre in Toronto for Housing in the GTA: What’s at Stake?

Aleem Punja, the National Operating Officer for the Aga Khan Council for Canada and Head of the Future Ready Initiative, kicked off the event by sharing his family’s story. He spoke of his father being born in India soon after the partition of India and Pakistan, resulting in his family essentially being homeless. They did not have enough money for a mud hut, a box, or any kind of shelter, so they took refuge in a place of worship. Fast forward a few decades, and Aleem’s family migrated to Canada, landing in Toronto. Through hard work and determination, his father was eventually able to buy their first home and later to move up to their second home and then their third home. Aleem spoke about how it was the equity gained along the way that allowed his family to gain wealth and he and his brother to be the first members of their extended family ever to pursue post-secondary education:

“It took just one generation to break the cycle of poverty. Just one. That’s it. Isn’t that contrary to what is possible today?”

Aleem Punja, the National Operating Officer for the Aga Khan Council for Canada and Head of the Future Ready Initiative.

Big dreams like buying a home, helping your kids go to university and seeing them become even more successful than you could have hoped. Little dreams like living in the same city as your parents and friends, along with nurses, teachers, and caregivers, all having a place as well for a strong, balanced society. It was these, the big dreams and little dreams, that permeated throughout the evening.

It is these dreams — big and little — that are at stake.

Before turning to the evening’s speakers, we polled the audience to describe how they feel about housing in the GTA in one word. As you can see from the word cloud that projected the results in real-time for all, most of the sentiments were downright depressing. Anxious. Concerned. Worried. Frustrated. Crisis. Overwhelmed (though if you look closely, you can find the words hopeful and optimistic.)

The audience was asked to describe their feelings about housing in the GTA in one word.

Against this backdrop, we heard from our panellists: Jan DeSilva, CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Dr. Sacha Bhatia, Population Health and Value Based Care Executive for Ontario Health and Eric Lombardi, Founder of More Neighbours Toronto.

Speaking as the head of the board of trade representing Canada’s largest regional economy, Jan DeSilva talked about how the GTA’s lack of housing creates major labour shortages, impacting our businesses and, ultimately, our region’s livability. She cited that many construction workers, nurses, teachers and those essential to keeping our cities running are leaving in droves. She pointed to the fact that the second-largest employment zone in the country is here in the GTA, near Pearson International Airport, where 350,000 people work every day (and kept us moving during the pandemic.) Some big names that depend on logistics from this area include Wal-Mart, Amazon, Canada Post and more. Average income for those who work in this area is $40,000 annually, a fragment of what is required to rent or buy an adequate place to live — a challenge made more difficult by the sheer absence of housing or reliable transit in proximity to this area. It’s part of a wider problem we’re seeing overall when it comes to attraction and retention affecting a broad swath of employees and our region’s livability and quality of living are at serious risk:

“Imagine if we cannot attract enough teachers to teach our children in the city. Imagine if we cannot attract enough nurses to provide care in the city”, lamented DeSilva. “This has been the missing message on our years-long march to push for more housing.”

Jan DeSilva, CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

Big dreams like having a decent-paying career and being able to stay here in the GTA. Little dreams, like living in a city where you can count on your services and amenities.

Dr. Sacha Bhatia, provided a first-hand view of the challenges facing our healthcare system and the connection to housing. At any given time, approximately 10% of all hospital beds in Ontario are taken up by those who do not have an acute medical reason to be there, but unfortunately have no housing and as a result, no place to go. We are all impacted because whether you need surgery, a heart attack or a bed, your local hospital is already dealing with unnecessary pressures. Dr. Bhatia talked about what it’s like to walk around a hospital ER and see the number of people who do not have adequate shelter and, unfortunately, have exacerbated health challenges. As he put it:

“Think about it — are you really going to care about your diabetes or managing your blood sugars if you don’t have a place to live — or if the place you live is making you sick There is really good data showing that adequate housing reduces medical complications of chronic illness, results in fewer heart attacks, enables people to live longer and healthier. That saves our health system money and so, is better for everybody.” He concluded, “If we truly want to preserve our healthcare system, we’re going to need to tackle the housing issue.”

Dr. Sacha Bhatia, Population Health and Value Based Care Executive for Ontario Health.

Big dreams like having a home so you can look after your health. Little dreams like not being stranded in a hospital setting and labelled a “bed blocker” because you have no place else to go.

From there, Eric Lombardi, founder of the volunteer-run group, More Neighbours Toronto, picked up the conversation, sharing the stark reality of seeing most of his peers and friends choosing to leave the GTA — or the country — because of their inability to buy a home. He shared the personal story of a couple he knows with well-paying jobs who find themselves debating whether to stay in the GTA and forgo having a family or moving out of the GTA in order to afford a family-sized home and realize their dream of having children. Eric summarized with the poignant statement,

“At the end of the day what we’ve allowed to happen as a result of this housing crisis is that we’ve stolen the dreams that used to matter in this society from young people.”

Eric Lombardi, Founder of More Neighbours Toronto.

Through Eric, we were reminded of Aleem’s story at the beginning and the Canadian dream that newcomers can come to this country, buy a home and enjoy a better life — something he describes as, increasingly becoming a myth.

In line with the smaller-sized sentiments of hope and optimism that dotted the big screen earlier in the evening, our panellists explored some solutions, including saying “yes” to more housing, talking to your local politicians about the need for more affordable housing and ending exclusionary zoning. But perhaps the most important takeaway from the evening was simply the reminder about why the fight for more affordable homes and housing affordability in the GTA matters. We must move past the simplistic view that people who can’t afford to live here should simply move elsewhere — leaving the city without any of our most essential workers. Rather, we must embrace a new vision for the shape of our GTA neighbourhoods and give our politicians the permission and support to make the bold and difficult policy changes required to get from here to there. This is the formula for ensuring the GTA remains a place where anyone who works hard can get ahead, just like Aleem’s family.

Following the discussion, a remarkable thing happened. People stayed. There were exchanges of notes about favourite moments and insights gained. There were honest conversations about whether we as a society will rise to the occasion and change course and create the more affordable GTA that we all want for ourselves, future generations, and newcomers.

There is indeed a great deal at stake in the housing crisis now occupying the headlines of our news. The conversation continues on Wednesday, April 19th with the second installment in our series, this time focused on Housing and Immigration in the GTA: What’s at Stake?

You can watch the full first installment of the Housing in the GTA: What’s at Stake? series here.



Ene Underwood

Ene is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, which helps working families build strength, stability and self-reliance through affordable homeownership.