You can't run a business from N.W.T. public housing. Is that fair?

Northwest Territories residents who benefit from rent subsidies through Housing N.W.T. are not allowed to run a business from home.

David Giroux, who runs GW Giroux Enterprises from the home he rents through Housing N.W.T. in Dettah, makes wood stoves, barbecues, hide scrapers and toboggan hitches, much of it from reclaimed metal.

Giroux is among residents who feel the Housing N.W.T. policy further limits the options of those already living in survival mode.

He says he understood from a former Housing N.W.T. manager that rules forbidding businesses in public housing had changed years ago. But he has recently been told via email that he cannot continue making and selling stoves and hide scrapers, which he has done since 2009.

The news comes just months after he took out a loan from the N.W.T. Métis Dene Development Fund to try to scale up his operations.

"I have inventory I'm scared to sell, orders I can't fulfill... I don't know what to do," Giroux said. "What if I lose the house, or the RCMP comes here?"

Giroux keeps all record of his earnings in a clear bag he adorns with words of affirmation and prayers. For years, he has carefully reported each sale in his taxes, which are monitored by Housing N.W.T.

His honesty comes at a price.

According to documents obtained by Cabin Radio, the corporation has determined that his business is so successful that he is only due $87 in subsidies. He is required to pay full market rent for his house as well as a $300 monthly payment toward his arrears, accrued during a period when sales were low. More than 50 per cent of his income now goes toward the building he has lived in for more than two decades, he said.

"I've been feeding the housing corporation for years," said Giroux. "Probably helped a couple people there retire."

As a result, the 57-year-old has not been able build savings and is relying on a loan to try to modernize his tools, get more done, and help lessen elbow pain from hours of cutting and bending metal into stoves and toboggans.

"I made a boat from scratch, I made a trailor hitch from scratch, without electric tools" he said. You're grinding for five hours a day on jobs that take 15 minutes with the right tools, and you're getting more exposure to noise and particles."

While the GNWT has a number of small business supports and grants available to foster economic development in the territory, some form of down payment is necessary for most grants and loans. Giroux says they are out of reach for people like himself, struggling to accumulate savings.

Katłįà Lafferty, author and co-chair of the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, also grew up in the Northwest Territories public housing system. After being raised by grandparents who had nothing to retire on after a lifetime of hard work, she has come to the conclusion that the system is set up to keep residents trapped in a cycle of poverty.

"At that point, why work, if they're just going to take the money?" Lafferty said. "We are still living very much traditionally in the North. And when it comes to selling goods, like beadwork and arts and crafts, a lot of the people do it because they love it.

"So you're being being told that you can't pursue your purpose in life and your passion because of where you are. That because you're in housing, you can never have any more money than what you've been given. It just diminishes a person's sense of motivation."

Home businesses, direct sales and "informal economy" jobs are often popular with women, people with disabilities and primary caregivers because of the flexibility they offer. Giroux says he doesn't feel at home in an overly structured corporate environment.

"It feels like discrimination," he said. "Not everyone is cut out for government, not everyone's cut out to work in the mines. Some people just need to be on their own.

"For me, after surviving residential school, surviving sexual assault... I had to deal with things my way. I went into business for myself, to be my own boss and be responsible for my own actions."

As the cost of living continues to rise, Lafferty says some tenants sell beadwork, jewellery and baked goods out of an urgent need to cover bills and grocery costs. Public housing residents in the Northwest Territories are disproportionately Indigenous, disabled, victims of domestic violence and struggling with their mental health. According to a 2020 Alternatives North report, almost all worry about being able to afford food.

But Housing N.W.T. told Cabin Radio its tenants' subsidized rent would give them an inappropriate advantage over local businesses if they began trading from home.

"Housing N.W.T. is mindful that with many N.W.T. businesses struggling to remain viable, it should not be creating an unfair playing field by subsidizing some businesses (including their utilities and premises) at the expense of others," said Tami Johnson, the agency's manager of communications.

Given public housing tenants are not likely to be able to afford other premises, some see a rule that effectively precludes them from self-directed business. Those that persist risk losing access to government benefits.

According to a 2022 report published by the Center for an Urban Future – an American public policy think tank whose work focused on New York City – it's not just residents that miss out when such regulations are in place. Communities benefit from increased access to ideas, creativity and skills that come from those living in public housing. In New York City, it's already legal for those residents to own home businesses.

Giroux is hoping someone or something will intervene and allow him to carry on. In the meantime, he's contacting politicians and advocates to see if the law can be changed.

"It's causing me a lot of stress," Giroux said. "I'm grieving the loss of my business."

Giroux has had a number of jobs over the years, including stints as a commercial fisherman and a woodcutter. On a grander scale, he has drawn up plans for a fish packing facility – but has never had quite enough funding to make that dream a reality.

"If I was born with the capital, I could have a fish processing plant by now. I could have bought a tractor and been able to haul 25 cords of wood instead of four. Instead, I was working day and night to make enough to live," he said.

"Money talks, eh? In this world, you've got to have money to make money."

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio