Living at Work: An Aid to Small Business?

The old joke of "living at work" could soon get a whole new meaning. 

Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno (1st) this week introduced the Work/Live Ordinance, which would allow business owners a chance to dedicate up to 30 percent of the space for residential use. 

"Families used to live in their stores," Moreno said, "This ordinance is a return to tradition."

Moreno said he was inspired by owner of The Alley Stores, Mark Thomas, who came to Moreno with the idea for having a home where you work.

Being in the retail business for the last 40 years, Thomas has seen stores come and go. Recently, Thomas said he's seen the number of empty store fronts double in his area. Like Moreno, Thomas is concerned for the well-being for small business owners and wanted to give entrepreneurs a chance to save money and keep their businesses during hard economic times.    

The current zoning codes only allows artists live in their business space. Moreno's ordinance would let any low-intensity, B-District zoned business to dedicate up to 30 percent of their space for residential use.

Business owners in C-Districts would also be able to reside in a portion of their commercial space if they were granted a "special use" through the Zoning Board of Appeals.  

Moreno cites culinary professionals, lawyers, salon owners and accountants among many who would be able to take advantage of this change. However, all businesses registering need to be legitimate businesses, Thomas said.

"The store needs to be open 6 days a week for 8 hours a day, " Thomas said, "It has to be a living, breathing business." 

Thomas said there's a large market for fashion designers to make their own clothes to sell their own retail stores. He knows first hand that fashion retail store owners would benefit from Moreno's ordinance.

"When I started a business 40 years ago, I had a 1,000 square foot store and I slept on a recliner in the back of the store. When I started getting money, I bought a pull-out couch for the back. Then, I got my first apartment and felt like a big shot," said Thomas.  

"Government needs to act as a resource for businesses, not as an impediment or obstacle. I’ll do whatever I can to help encourage entrepreneurialism and innovation," said Moreno.

Although Moreno has not worked out all the nitty-gritty details for every dark corner of the ordinance, there are questions that remain.

But is it financially practical for a small business owner to build a living space to begin with? If the business is already doing poorly and the owner pinching pennies, the added costs of building might push it over the edge. A business owner will have to be careful to weigh all the costs before taking a step into living in a retail space. Also, the length of time it could take to make the money back on all the cost of building might not be worth it. 

Will it wreck the appeal of the space for customers by making it 30 percent smaller? Spaces can be tight to begin with and an owner with an already tiny space might not benefit from this ordinance.

While it sounds like a great idea for a single business owner, there are plenty of owners who have small, expensive spaces but also have families. Is it practical for them?

The ordinance can initially sound like a good idea for a small business owner. However, weighing the pros and the cons might have entrepreneurs finding the ordinance just doesn't cover them.

Still, Moreno's ordinance could be a resource for certain businesses and a step in the right direction to keep our independent stores and business owners alive.   

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