March 27, 2020
By Christina Sandefur
Over the past couple of decades, technological advances have afforded entrepreneurs unprecedented opportunities to start businesses from their homes, allowing them to save money, maintain a flexible schedule, and realize their dreams of self-employment. But as Americans grapple with the coronavirus healthcare crisis, the ability to earn a living from home has taken on a new significance. Now more than ever, lawmakers must eliminate unnecessary regulations governing home-based businesses, so that people can continue providing needed services while social distancing, and so that our economy can recover as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, scores of outmoded zoning, licensing, and permitting requirements are impeding people’s ability to work from home. Some cities even make operating a home-based business a crime—punishable by stiff financial penalties and even jail time—simply because the business is run from a home instead of an office.
Just a few weeks ago, a Springfield, Virginia, woman who ran an internet clothing business from her home was forced by the city to shut down because the local zoning doesn’t permit “retail sales establishments” in people’s homes—even if those sales only occur online. She’s already lost $30,000 of her income. In these times of great uncertainty, we should be doing everything we can to make it easier for people to find and sustain work—not turning honest, hardworking people into outlaws.
Yet cities from Nashville to Portland to San Francisco to Phoenix routinely prohibit people from earning money by providing much-needed services from home, such as cutting hair, giving violin lessons, tutoring schoolchildren, teaching yoga, or doing people’s taxes. Some cities even require artists to get permission from the government to work in at-home studios.
Surprisingly, many cities even prohibit home-based businesses from employing off-site nonresidents. Chandler, Arizona, resident Kim O’Neil ran afoul of a similar restriction when she tried to run a quiet, unobtrusive medical billing business that helped doctors and patients, and provided flexible jobs to women—only to be shut down by city officials because she employed people who didn’t even work out of her house.
With many businesses shuttering indefinitely as the country battles COVID-19, it’s unthinkable that governments would stand in the way of people finding innovative ways to earn a living and serve their community’s needs. If it’s legal to do your own income taxes at your kitchen table, there’s no reason that an accountant should be barred from doing someone else’s taxes in her home office, assuming she follows the rules of the profession. If a mother can teach her daughter to play the violin in her living room, it makes no sense for the government to penalize her for teaching someone else’s daughter in the same living room for money.
When they return to their statehouses, legislators looking to accelerate economic recovery should prioritize laws that protect people’s rights to safely and peacefully work from home. Under Goldwater’s Home-Based Business Fairness Act, people who work from home and don’t cause disruption to the residential area aren’t required to obtain a costly and time-consuming home occupation license or permit. Cities can still require that homes be primarily used as residences, so there would be no risk of shopping centers cropping up in residential neighborhoods. But if people’s work has no harmful effect on the community—meaning they don’t generate excess parking or traffic, or cause noise or other disturbances, and are not visible from the street—Big Brother can’t deny them the right to work.
These are trying times, and Americans have enough on their hands dealing with an unprecedented national health crisis. Responsible home-based business owners should not be dragged through expensive, tedious, often futile permitting processes. We can and will recover from these difficult times—and one of the first steps toward ensuring that is for policymakers to embrace the new economy and empower people to pursue the American Dream, whether they do so from an office or their living room.
Christina Sandefur is the Executive Vice President at the Goldwater Institute.