Legal At Last

Homebased businesses are finally legal in Chicago. Here's how they did it.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

On the face of it, the passage of legislation last May legalizing homebased businesses in Chicago was just a matter of timing. After all, America is in a growing love affair with the concept of working from home. Corporations are restructuring, throwing thousand of workers into an overcrowded and hostile job market and prompting many of them to start businesses from home. At the same time, technology has made creating a professional homebased business almost as simple as flicking a switch.

Legalizing homebased businesses in America's third largest city was simply a concept whose time had come. that's all there was to it . . . right?

Not quite.

In fact, the battle to win approval of the ordinance to legalize these businesses turned into a 12-year fight in the Chicago city council that involved redefining homebased business as an economic concern rather than a women's issue and creating powerful alliances between government, homebased business advocates and corporate America.

Laying The Foundations

The first efforts to legalize homebased business in Chicago began in late 1982 and were primarily spurred by public officials, remembers Coralee Kern, president of the National Association for the Cottage Industry. "We wrote and rewrote the zoning ordinances and sent away to other cities to find out what they were doing, but nobody really paid attention to us," says Kern.

"It also started out as an issue with the Chicago Advisory Council on Women [established by then-Mayor Harold Washington]," explains Hedy Ratner, Executive director of the Women's Business Development Center. "At that time, zoning regulations in Chicago did not allow homebased business, so women [who made up most homebased business owners] were functioning illegally. This meant they could not get business loans, couldn't get certified as woman-owned businesses and couldn't get licenses."

They also couldn't get city contracts, grants or credit card merchant status, and were simply not taken seriously, adds Ida Bialik, owner and publisher of the Women In Business Yellow Pages and another early advocate of legalization.

Despite the commission's efforts, Ratner says, they spent years going back and forth between the city administration and the Chicago aldermen trying to get someone to introduce the legislation. No one would.

"It was a classic land use issue," says Chicago zoning administrator Paul Woznicki. "People's biggest investment is their homes, and they want to maintain the integrity of the residential area."

In addition, Bialik says, unions-most notably the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union-were concerned that legalizing homebased businesses would enable unscrupulous employers to create abusive, "sweatshop" work environments.

Fanning The Flames

All the opposition had almost halted the movement's momentum, Bialik remembers, when several events helped to reignite the fire in proponents of legalization.

Around 1992, says Bialik, Baby Bell company Ameritech "put an ad in the paper saying they were targeting the home office market. I called them and asked how the city felt abut them targeting an illegal business."

That didn't get her anywhere, so she went to the zoning commission to see how it felt about Ameritech's actions as well as those of Sears, which had just begun offering employees the option of telecommuting.

The flames were fanned even further during the 1993 Illinois Women's Economic Summit. Legalizaing homebased businesses was put on the summit's agenda, and during what turned into an almost daylong meeting on the issue, Kern says attendees got truly fired up.

"Cindy Richards, who was on the editorial board of the Chicago Sun Times, was there, and when she didn't leave the room to go to any other meeting, I knew something was going to happen," recalls Kern.

At that meeting, 70 women's organizations representing thousands of members agreed to actively work on legalization. And for the next year, Kern, Bialik, Ratner and other volunteers held meetings with, sent faxes and letters to, and made phone calls to city officials in the zoning, fire, building and safety departments to keep them abreast of developments.

The activists' diligence paid off, and in September 1994, the first meeting of the Home Occupations Task Force, created by Mayor Richard Daley, was held. By May 1995, an ordinance had been unanimously approved by the city aldermen. It included a provision to monitor implementation of the law and review it in a year and was also written to address many of the objections raised by opponents of legalization.

Among the restrictions in the law created to maintain the residential character of neighborhoods were limiting delivery times, controlling the number of customers and patrons in the home at any one time, and allowing the use of only 300 square feet of the house, says Ben Gibson, chief assistant of the city's corporation council.

To satisfy union concerns about a resurgence of sweatshops, says Bialik, a section was included that specifically mentioned an existing law preventing such activity.

Grass-Roots Ideas

No matter what city you're in, changing decades-old zoning regulations is no walk in the park. Those who decide to make the effort face stiff resistance from homeowners, politicians and city officials alike. Chicago proponents offer the following advice as a road map to help you successfully negotiate the process:

  • Define the issue, but be careful you don't make the focus so narrow (a women's/minority/senior citizen issue) that you are easily ignored. A more broad-based approach allows the formation of strategic alliances among small businesses and with larger companies that are targeting the homebased business market. Also get the support of organizations, such as chambers of commerce and small-business development centers.
  • Demonstrate how homebased businesses fit into the economic picture of the area, and show evidence of their contributions.
  • Find homebased entrepreneurs willing to stand up and be counted through letter-writing and speaking at public hearings.
  • Use the media, taking advantage of the national publicity the homebased business movement is garnering.
  • Find supportive legislators who will introduce and push an ordinance through.

"You've also got to pull together all the administrative departments the ordinance will impact-the fire department, zoning, building and so on," advises zoning administrator Woznicki. "You've got to bring all parties [officials, entrepreneurs, corporations and assistance organizations] together so they can understand the different perspectives."

Kern suggests contracting the American Planning Association, a nonprofit city-planning organization that offers books and booklets on zoning for homebased business. Call them at (312) 431-9100.

The key to success is continued forward momentum,, says Bialik. Victory won't come in a day, a week or even a month, but with persistence and a carefully orchestrated plan, it can come.

On The Homefront

Looking for homebased business assistance? Check out the following.

  • Alabama Cooperative Extension Service works one-on-one to help entrepreneurs create homebased businesses in fields as diverse as sewing and medical billing. Contact Georgia Aycock, 163 Spidle Hall, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849-5644, (334) 844-2215.
  • Alaska Small Business Development Center hosts a homebased business workshop each year during fall or winter. Contact Jean Wall, 430 W. Seventh Ave., #110, Anchorage, AK 99501, (907) 274-7232.
  • Formed in 1987, the Vancouver Home-Based Business Association offers seminars, problem-solving sessions, electronic marketing capabilities, trade show information, member discounts, networking opportunities, a newsletter and more. Membership is $75 annually. For more information, all (604) 224-7243.

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