Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6 – Northwest Seattle), Chair of the City’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, together with Council President M. Lorena Gonzalez (Pos. 9 – Citywide), introduced C.B. 120001 on Monday, titled “Bringing Business Home, a Small Business Flexibility Bill,” in an effort to provide additional support and a means towards economic recovery for small businesses adversely affected by current land use codes during the pandemic.
After hearing from a small business impacted by the current rules, Strauss drafted, and González co-sponsored, legislation to adopt interim regulations to allow businesses greater flexibility to operate out of garages and residences. The proposed changes recognize that while the current COVID-19 economic recession has forced small, independent businesses to find creative solutions to survive, City regulations have not kept up. This legislation allows small businesses to bring their businesses home, reducing one of their largest expenses, rent.
Earlier this month, Greenwood’s Yonder Bar, a retail-only tasting room, announced it had to close despite widespread neighborhood support after a complaint led the City to find it in violation of the current code.
“The land use code is not set up to be responsive to emerging needs, such as the changing environment created by the pandemic,” said Strauss. “Knowing that small businesses are already struggling, or in many cases going under, I knew swift and immediate action was very necessary. This legislation provides flexibility to local entrepreneurs to survive and thrive through the pandemic. Bringing Business Home prioritizes small businesses and families, and ensures zoning laws reflect the emergent needs of our community.”
“This bill removes outdated land-use regulations that hinder the ability of our neighborhood businesses to recover from the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19,” said González. “Small businesses are an essential part of neighborhood character across the City and we must innovate to allow these microenterprises to be at the center of our neighborhood business district recovery and revitalization efforts.
Strauss continued: “When the SDCI rules were first written/drafted, no one could have predicted the changing nature of land use codes, or that small businesses would be navigating a global pandemic. This legislation adds flexibility and clarity, allowing business owners to more easily navigate the land use code.
“When we are on the other side of this pandemic we need to be sure the businesses and employees that make up the ‘fabric’ of our communities — from the cidery, to the seamstresses, the barbers, therapists and others — will still be in our neighborhoods.
“With so many people working from home and in our residential neighborhoods, this legislation will help make neighborhoods more vibrant. There are home-based businesses in my neighborhood currently operating out of compliance with current code. While they have not been reported or cited, it is important we provide an even playing field for them, because they add vibrancy to our neighborhoods. Supporting local neighborhood businesses keeps small businesses open, our neighbors employed, and helps our local economy recover,” Strauss said.
“Since the launch of our company in August, it became a safe and welcoming place in our neighborhood during a time when that can be hard to find,” said Caitlin Braam, the founder of Yonder Cider. “We had regulars who had been visiting us for months, families who biked to see us every weekend and neighbors who up until our very last day would discover us with delight on their evening walk. Its closure has been heartbreaking.”
“We appreciate the City Council’s openness and forward thinking on this topic. Starting a small business – COVID or not – is hard and it’s expensive. Allowing small businesses to safely and securely operate out of their homes not only frees them of the financial burden and stress that come with long term commercial leases, it gives them a chance to be a vibrant and contributing part of their community,” Braam said.
Limitations on business and economic activity disproportionately impact small businesses, which are less likely to have financial reserves to withstand extended periods of closure or limited operations and likely disproportionately impacts small businesses owned by women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. As an example, Seattle has over 4,000 active business licenses for restaurants, caterers, and other businesses in the food industry; the 2016 Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs estimates that nearly 48 percent of the firms in the accommodation and food services industry in the Seattle metropolitan area are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
“Creating flexibility and options for micro-enterprise lowers barriers like access to capital that keep many, especially BIPOC entrepreneurs, from starting a business. During historic unemployment rates, this law will allow hundreds of Seattle residents to make ends meet,” said González. “This is one way the City can support small businesses to get closer to economic recovery and neighborhood revitalization.”
The changes in this ordinance are designed to allow small businesses, which may at one-time have operated out of a storefront or other commercially-leased location, to operate more easily out of a home. Home-based businesses are already allowed, as long as they meet conditions set by the City. The proposal would modify some of the most restrictive conditions for the next year to allow more businesses to operate out of homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The requirements that would be suspended are:
- Customer visits are by appointment only
- There is no evidence of the home-based business visible from the exterior of the structure
- No more than two persons who are not residents of the building may work in a home-based business
- The home-based business shall not cause a substantial increase in on-street parking congestion or a substantial increase in traffic within the immediate vicinity
Home-based businesses would also be allowed to operate in a house’s off-street parking stall or garage and have one non-illuminated sign with the business name if it is not larger than 720 square inches.
“By Bringing Business Home, we will keep more small businesses operating and speed up the economic recovery once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted,” concluded Strauss.
The legislation will be considered in Strauss’ committee on Wednesday, February 24. A full Council vote is expected on Monday, March 15.