Massive re-write of Chicago’s home business ordinance stalls in committee

With many Chicagoans working from home, Ald. Gilbert Villegas wants to relax rules on home businesses. His revised ordinance deletes some things he called “outdated and not relevant” — but city regulators want them restored.

SHARE Massive re-write of Chicago’s home business ordinance stalls in committee
Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

A Chicago City Council committee on Tuesday considered an ordinance that would have relaxed restrictions on home businesses.

Sun-Times file

A proposal to relax restrictions governing home businesses to accommodate a work-from-home trend inspired by, but likely to outlive, the coronavirus pandemic will remain in committee, frustrating its influential sponsor.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) championed the reforms, and on Tuesday, he had hoped to push them through the Committee on Economic and Capital Development he chairs.

But an admittedly frustrated Villegas agreed to postpone the vote after the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection asked that “a couples of things we struck that we thought were outdated or not relevant” be put back into the ordinance.

“I want to try to minimize as much opposition as possible. If the administration, BACP is asking for a couple of things in order to get it fixed, I’m not gonna put it up, then have this big battle over some language that could just be changed,” said Villegas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader.

“Some language that we struck — they want it back in. They wanted to make sure Zoning had one more review of the ordinance. And time ran out. So here we are, having to wait again for the departments to take a look at it.”

Villegas acknowledged being “frustrated” by the delay.

“We’re in a pandemic. We’re about to get out of it. But businesses have been hurting throughout this whole process. Here’s an opportunity to be creative and try to help businesses and it’s not moving as quickly as I’d like,” he said.

The stay-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus forced thousands of Chicagoans to work from home. The trend is likely to endure — at least in hybrid form — long after downtown employees return to their offices.

With that trend in mind, Villegas proposed the most fundamental rewrite in the decades-long history of Chicago’s home-business ordinance.

The new rules would: let home businesses expand to “accessory structures” as well as dwelling units; more than triple the amount of square footage allowed; lift the ban on construction or landscaping businesses and allow them to store goods and materials on site; and expand the hours during which home businesses can accept shipments or deliveries.

Instead of occupying just 10% of a single family home’s floor area, a home business could use 35%. Home business owners would be authorized to sell “any product on display shelves or racks.” They would be permitted to receive bulk deliveries from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and could receive unlimited bulk deliveries in that time, instead of being limited to one per day.

When applying for a home business license, owners would no longer be required to disclose whether the business would be operated out of a single-family home or a multi-unit building or whether an accessory building would be used to operate the business.

Isaac Reichman, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the department has “identified a couple of areas that need further evaluation in order to ensure safeguards are in place to protect consumers from fraud and adhere to zoning requirements.”

But Reichman’s statement also underscored the Lightfoot administration’s commitment to “expanding opportunities” under the home business ordinance “as a means of supporting entrepreneurs and promoting business growth.”

Villegas said hopes the differences are worked out quickly, paving the way for full Council approval next month.

“For me, time was of the essence. You have a pandemic that has devastated business. We have to figure out a way to help businesses trying to stay alive. They create jobs and tax revenues the city needs,” Villegas said.

“Businesses had to change where they operate in order to stay alive. They’ve been able to stay in business because of the use of technology. We have to adapt as well. The pandemic has devastated tons of businesses. Some are not coming back. But if there’s a change we can make to help some of those still exist, we should take a look at it.”

Even if the full Council approves the Villegas re-write, a host of home business activities would remain prohibited. They include repairing or painting motor vehicles, trailers, boats and lawn equipment; animal service; astrology, card and palm reading and fortune telling; dancing, tutoring or children-related activities; massage establishments; and catering or food-related businesses.

Also prohibited: funeral homes or chapels; training in or sale of firearms, ammunition or other weapons; dispatch services; hair, nail, body-piercing or tattoo salons and welding or machine shops.

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