Garage Logic

IF YOU LISTEN to the economists, the trend gurus, the urban planners and the politicians, working from home is the Next Big Thing. Why, just last week the city of Minneapolis said so in its much-ballyhooed 25-year plan: "The ability to run a small business from the home feeds an entrepreneurial spirit that may otherwise never be kindled in the face of considerable obstacles... Home-based businesses are exactly the kind of activity that the city must accommodate as the nature of work changes [read: downsizing, telecommunications, people wanting to stay closer to their families]."

Michelle Bloom couldn't have said it better herself. So why, she wonders, did the City Council just pass some of the toughest home-business regulations around? Why, for that matter, did officials work for three years with people like herself, only to turn around, change key provisions, and vote them in with little notice? "Maybe," she says hopefully, "they weren't thinking. Maybe they were misinformed. But they created a huge amount of fear in the community."

Bloom, of course, is biased. She runs Creative Business Consulting International, a 12-year-old firm that counsels home businesses, out of her northeast Minneapolis duplex. But she's not the only one worried about the new law. Since its passage in May, City Council phones have been ringing off the hook with complaints from entrepreneurs, activists, and researchers. They complain that Minneapolis is poised to choke what University of Minnesota researcher Kris Nelson calls "the invisible engine of the urban economy." (Nelson has supervised studies showing that even in economically depressed neighborhoods, home-based businesses often develop into full-time-plus operations bringing in between $20,000 and $150,000 a year.)

It wasn't supposed to go this way. When the city's Planning Department staff first began tinkering with the 1963 zoning code that regulates home businesses, it invited community representatives in for talks that went on for years. The result was a draft ordinance that passed the Planning Commission with flying colors. City Council approval seemed a formality.

But it wasn't. In a few weeks of meetings, with no public testimony, politicians drastically tightened the new ordinance. Among other things, they decreed that home businesses:

* can't have employees who don't live on the premises (the original draft would have allowed one);

* may operate only between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.;

* and can't see more than three clients at a time, or five in a day.

Put together, critics say, those regulations make Minneapolis one of the toughest places in the metro area to run a home business (a spot check by City Pages confirms that of a dozen cities, only Edina has tougher rules). Day-care providers, who already work under a host of state rules, are exempt. But many other operations could be in trouble. Caterers and landscapers often use seasonal or part-time help. Piano teachers and accountants get most of their business in the evening. People who conduct small-group lessons or seminars, Bloom says, "often won't even bother to take groups smaller than four or five--it just doesn't pay."

But people like Bloom, says Council member Pat Scott (7th Ward), really don't have anything to worry about. When the Council made the changes, she says, it was thinking of businesses that had caused problems. (Seems that every Council member has a story of a garage-based body shop driving neighbors crazy, even though auto repair has always been prohibited as a home business.) "Nobody is going to go looking for businesses that are in violation," Scott says. "It's only when we get complaints that we enforce, and in those cases it seemed prudent to go with the most conservative approach possible. The people who don't cause complaints--I wish I could tell them to relax a little bit."

But that wink-wink-nod-nod approach doesn't reassure everyone. Ethics aside, many operators worry about bottom-line problems like liability insurance, which won't cover illegal activity. Massage therapists have long been concerned about this, since city laws define their work as an "adult business" permitted only in a small portion of downtown. The new ordinance is even clearer, listing "massage" (no qualifiers, no definition) as one of the activities prohibited for a home-based business.

Whatever the City Council had in mind, it's a safe bet it wasn't prepared for the reaction. A nascent network of home workers has organized a string of "informational sessions" for politicians, and more lobbying efforts are in the works. For now, Bloom says, she and her cohorts hope the law will be changed before the September 30 compliance deadline. Just to be sure, however, they're also talking to the people who want to replace current Council members in the November election. "If we can't get action this summer," Bloom says, "there's always January."

 
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