Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

It Shouldn't Be Illegal to Work at Home

When Lij Shaw's daughter was born, he decided to work from home so he could spend more time with his family.

A record producer in Nashville, Shaw found a slightly offbeat solution to achieving work-life balance: Investing over $100,000, he completely soundproofed his house's detached garage and transformed it into The Toy Box Studio, a professional recording space featuring state-of-the-art digital equipment and classic analog devices. Over the next decade, Shaw hosted countless musicians, one of whom even mixed the album that won the first ever Grammy Award for Best Roots Gospel Album. During this time, not one of his neighbors ever complained to Shaw about noise, traffic, or anything else regarding his studio.

Nonetheless, in 2015, Nashville's code enforcement ordered Shaw to cease and desist. Only by dropping the studio's recording rates from his website and removing its address from Google Maps was he able to escape prosecution. Business for the studio—Shaw's main source of income—plummeted.

Nashville's zoning code bars most businesses from serving clients in the owner's home. Shaw tried to have his home rezoned. But though he received overwhelming support from dozens of neighbors and even some members of the city's planning commission, the Nashville Metro Council denied his application. And so in December, Shaw—along with the Institute for Justice, where I work, and the Beacon Center of Tennessee—filed a lawsuit challenging Nashville's client ban for home occupations. "A man's home is his castle," he says. "I should have the right to earn a living in mine."

The prohibition "makes outlaws out of perhaps thousands of Nashvillians who…are simply trying to earn an honest living," according to the suit. There are at least 1,600 home-based enterprises in operation in the city, and since many such companies are forced to operate illegally, the true count is most likely even higher.

Joining Shaw in his lawsuit is Pat Raynor, a licensed cosmetologist who similarly had her home-based salon destroyed. She tried three different ways to gain legal recognition for the business, yet six years later, Raynor still cannot see clients in her own home.

Nashville is hardly alone in restricting these businesses. In Dunwoody, Georgia, the City Council unanimously denied a permit to Rhett Roberson, a board-certified therapist, who wanted to turn his basement into a physical therapy space. Several of his neighbors had vigorously lobbied against his application, with one claiming that allowing Roberson to see clients on site would be a slippery slope to other clinics opening in the area, including "psychiatrists treating sex offenders or even veterans with PTSD."

A few miles west in Cobb County, Georgia, code enforcers actually cited the popular gaming vlogger Justin Chandler for earning a living as a "professional YouTuber." With the nom du jeu "KOSDFF," Chandler currently has over a million subscribers to his channel. But by uploading gaming videos and making money from content produced at home, the county claimed he was operating an unlicensed residential business. His income doesn't even involve seeing clients at his house, but to avoid further legal trouble, he handed over $470 for a license.

Many cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, and Washington, ban home-based companies from having more than one employee who isn't a resident. By capping payroll so severely, these jurisdictions needlessly prevent entrepreneurs from growing their businesses and creating new jobs.

According to a survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016, home-based businesses generated nearly $632 billion in total revenue in 2012. In fact, slightly more than half of America's businesses were primarily home-based. Many iconic American companies began as little more than dreams in their founders' houses. Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard were started in garages in Northern California; Walt Disney drew the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in a studio at his home.

Fortunately, lawmakers are starting to develop more respect for private property rights. Last year, Utah banned cities and counties from imposing licensing fees on these businesses. And a few months before that, Chicago changed a rule to allow such enterprises to hire non-residents as couriers and the like—so long as they work outside the home in question.

Photo Credit: © Adrianhillman/Dreamstime.com

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Cyto||

    The youtuber citation is particularly concerning.

    Exactly how is his business of filming himself in his home and posting the edited videos any different from the hundreds of thousands of independent contractors writing code and posting it to source code control from home?

    Or for that matter, how is it any different from the millions of people who work from home in any number of professions? A good sized chunk of the nation's sales force works out of their home office. Most musicians who give lessons do so out of their home.

    That seems to be a really, really broad definition.

  • NCBlueJay||

    Or writers! I can't think of any difference between someone creating YouTube videos in his own home and someone writing and self-publishing his own books.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The YouTube citation was a red herring intended to be conflated with the other examples.

    If Nashville had just asked for $500 this would have been a non story.

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, in my case, I incorporated, paid the fees, and coded my little ass off from home.

    Note the phrase "paid the fees"!

  • Cyto||

    Yeah, this is what bothers me. I did the same thing.

    Not only did I "Pay the Fees!", there were knock-on consequences. Since my home address was also a "business address", I had to pay business rates for trash pickup. The cost more than doubled.... and when I asked why they told me it was because of the additional trash a business creates....

    Mind you, residential... no employees other than the current resident. No additional trash....

    Sheesh.

    But I paid. Because I was getting paid. And they wet their beaks.

    (in all honesty, I had forgotten about that part of it. The reason? Because my margins were thin enough that sales tax was taking as much from my customers as I was after taxes. And of course the state and federal taxes were getting even more. So a couple hundred bucks kinda slipped my mind before your post, what with everyone else getting their beaks wet before I got to dip mine. Thanks for bringing back that memory. Next time why don't you give me a paper cut and pour a little lemon juice on it for good measure...)

  • Voros McCracken||

    Their counter argument to this is, "pay up, peasant!"

    Feudalism, alive and well.

  • Flinch||

    I had an odd thought about this story: don't panic, the Clintons have shown the way. The idea simple: where licensing/taxes/fees exceed the 10% of gross threshold, the answer is a foundation. Come up with your own gibberish, be it giving "underprivileged" access to studios or whatever. You see, the pols know you need layers - it works. So the way it works is to NOT contract a studio for hours, but to make a donation to the foundation first to get on their mailing/contact list. This gets you a "thank you" dinner with the operator [off site], where he can make an offer for studio time as a separate matter on a charity basis. The catch is, either 10% of cash has to be given to charity every year, or dig up bands to record that have never made a donation. Tax free studio? I think it just might be possible.

  • creech||

    "Somewhere, somehow, someone is having fun and not disturbing anyone else. We can't have that in our community."

  • Eidde||

    The Puritans at least thought that by punishing sin they were averting divine wrath from their community.

    Are these zoning people worried that the lack of rigorous code enforcement would bring down the vengeance of an affronted God?

    Or are they just dicks, and this is what they do?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    No, they aren't just dicks, they are power hungry dicks.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Commercial property developers need government protection too, you know,

  • Bubba Jones||

    I don't have any problem with residential neighborhoods banning businesses from serving clients at their home. These rules were all in place before the owners bought their houses.

    The YouTube example was a red herring.

  • junyo||

    I have no problem with residential communities saying you can't drastically increase the traffic or noise or parking situation in a neighborhood, and those rules should be blanket, and apply whether you're running a home business or throwing constant weekly ragers. But if I'm not measurably impacting the neighbors, it's nobody's business if I'm working or running a business from home.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Hmm, so what is "drastic"? In a typical suburb, especially with limited off-street parking, how many client or employee cars every day (as opposed to an occasionaly party) crosses your threshold? And how much noise or other bothersome spill-over, again every day, would be too much?

  • Bubba Jones||

    The real question is whether a disgruntled neighbor complained or if some government agent was trolling for enforcement dollars.

  • Agammamon||

    Well, in this particular example, more than the number of client/employee cars and noise and bothersome spillover that he was producing.

  • Eidde||

    I can see limits on the traffic you're allowed in your place - maybe there's a theshold where it gets too much, or there's too many people parking at one time.

    But the same problem can be caused if the guy is holding too many dinner parties or whatever. Why not go for the specific problem - "don't have so many cars crowding the streets!"

  • Agammamon||

    Shaw tried to have his home rezoned. But though he received overwhelming support from dozens of neighbors and even some members of the city's planning commission, the Nashville Metro Council denied his application.
  • Agammamon||

    Fecking Reason.

    Shaw tried to have his home rezoned. But though he received overwhelming support from dozens of neighbors and even some members of the city's planning commission, the Nashville Metro Council denied his application.

    You know the saying 'its better to ask forgiveness than permission'? Well, with government, if you don't ask for permission you won't get forgiveness - just vindictiveness.

  • Flinch||

    I'm thinking the nashvill metro council could use a RICO case. This covers for one of their big donors I shouldn't doubt, and since when do anti trust laws disappear just because a private entity has latched on to government at some level as a part of their criminal enterprise?

  • Eric L||

    That reminds me that some great Jazz recordings of the 1950's were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in a studio that was his parents living room in Hackensack, NJ. One wonders what the neighbors were thinking when they saw all these men coming and going at all hours of the day.

  • Flinch||

    Not much - most musicians lead quiet, conservative, unobtrusive lives. Put an instrument in their hands, and the world changes for a few moments as the ether gets tapped into.

  • Sam Grove||

    This is the kind of thing that makes sensible people hate government.

  • Jerryskids||

    How many recording studios do you suppose there are in Nashville, a city where music is a major industry? If you don't think about it much, you might think Nashville would cut a recording studio some slack, but if you think about it a bit you'd realize commercial recording studios sure as hell aren't going to cut a competitor any slack. So where do you suppose the complaints about this guy were coming from?

  • Longtobefree||

    I am of the mind that there should be only one profession that requires a license; political candidate.
    Perhaps a common sense requirement that the applicant for the license have 50 years of training, and be 100 years old at the time of application. With a reasonable fee of 10 million dollars, with no donations allowed.

    I suspect that would REALLY improve the lives of the ordinary citizen.

  • Echospinner||

    The only way to fight lawfare is with more lawfare.

    This is something libertarians can do to help people whose rights are violated by the government. Fight them in court. I found an organization called Institute for Justice that does just that. They get a four star rating from charity navigator. Thinking of becoming a donor.

    Anybody know anything about them?

  • creech||

    Two thumbs up!

  • Echospinner||

    And tax deductible. Sent them something and they are going on my annual list.

  • Flinch||

    I like IJ, but charity navigator is not that great a vetting tool, and I leave their calculus out of any equation.

  • Robert||

    This article was frustratingly light on explanation.

    Nashville's code enforcement ordered Shaw to cease and desist. Only by dropping the studio's recording rates from his website and removing its address from Google Maps was he able to escape prosecution.


    The code was so particular as to outlaw listing rates on a Web site or listing on Google Maps?

    Business for the studio—Shaw's main source of income—plummeted.


    Just from those 2 changes?? Are there so many clients that rate conscious that they search by rate, and won't phone or e-mail for rates? Were prospects dropping in w/o an appointment, so they needed to find it on Google Maps?

  • Echospinner||

    I believe it.

    If you are using Google as your default and type in any business type, florist whatever you get near the top of the list florists near me which takes you right to google maps and a list of florists near you which you can click on.

    So he would not be there but all of the other studios would.

    Even if someone did find him if the other studios had published rates and he did not it would be a huge disadvantage. The recording business is very competitive.

  • gormadoc||

    We're talking about a recording studio in Nashville. It's already fairly competitive, so I completely believe that these two changes are enough to kill his income. Most people use the internet to find places of interest; without Google Maps he's relegated to just Google Ads (expensive) and normal search engine listings, which are probably dominated by the larger studios.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Sounds like he wasn't getting a lot of repeat business or referrals.

    I suppose that's normal? The established artists use "real" studios and this is just the wannabe economy?

  • CE||

    I don't mean to be tellin' tales out of school, but there's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    I still would not want to live in a no-zoning Libertarian paradise, at least not without at least 100 acres of my own (and my house in the middle).

    If we accept the purpose of even minimum zoning, then all the squabble can focus on what is an action violation. And if zoning needs updating to reflect 21st century technology, then get after it. I suspect that many older zoning regs prohibiting home businesses expected that any level of business activity required bothersome levels of visitors, material, or noise.

  • Flinch||

    At the end of the day, zoning boils down to four things: traffic, parking, noise and hours. That's it. So, quiet businesses that operate in one on one fashion will usually stay under the radar - music lessons, financial planners, etc don't draw a crowd and only mental patients posing as neighborhood nazi's object to them. If there was an organic complaint that led to the zoning action it was driven by that, but he had enough sense to soundproof, so they guy is a decent human being. Absent one of those four things causing problems in the neighborhood, it was another studio abusing the city to snipe competition, and that's anti-competetive behavior that monopolies are made of. Unfortunately, the anti-trust division at DOJ was quietly mothballed decades ago. I'm not sure smelling salts would wake them up at this point. Add this story to the stack of stuff begging "where's Waldo?" regarding the whereabouts of one Jeff Sessions.

  • R. K. Phillips||

    Libertarian paradise would not be "no-zoning". But the zoning would be agreed upon by those in the area, not some board of whatevers that have never been in the area.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Full on libertarian paradise would probably have most residential infrastructure privately owned, so zoning would be more in the form of covenants agreed to as part of admission to the 'neighborhood'.

  • Joe_JP||

    "It Shouldn't Be Illegal to Work at Home"

    Depends on what kind of work. Residential areas can have zoning rules that make certain types of work there illegal. Basically, residential zoning can be a thing. I'm up to the usual debate over details. The fact they are trying to make an "honest" living isn't really much of a dividing line. Honesty isn't the core concern regarding residential zoning. Nor, is it a disrespect of property rights. Property owners can join together and decide an area should be residential.

    The article has examples where the home is set up for customers. Again, this is basically deciding residential zoning is somehow a problem. A neighborhood set forth for residences, not for customers (be it therapists, hair stylists or whatever) is not some horrible (to use a bad word for some) "progressive" regulatory line drawing device. Customers changes the dynamic of an area. "Musicians" coming and going, yes, might just change the dynamic of the neighborhood. A person can "work at home" (e.g., as a writer) without that.

    Yet again, I'm open to the usual line drawing. So, maybe now and then someone an editor will come to the home or whatever. It's not the same thing as if someone is running a business with an influx of customers.

  • cravinbob||

    People keep referencing "property owners" and that they should decide but is that into perpetuity? Owners do sell and move away and new owners may have a different view. I always thought as long as taxes are paid government is happy and butts out. When revenue is lost who is happy then? I will say competitors that drive out others are... Recording studios competing in Nashville? Nah, couldn't be...

  • dontquestionit||

    People having dogs and kids changes the "dynamic of the neighborhood." We all would appreciate if dogs and kids were outlawed. I would rather a CPA who takes clients at home move in next door to me than someone with a dog or a child.

    All of the issues can be covered with decent legislation. In these parts, where I am, permitted home businesses in the non-ag residential areas are allowed with specific rules limiting the amount of space (750sq ft with no modifications to external home structure to accommodate business), number of employees (no more than 2 who are not residents of home), parking and entrance space (must park on paved surface; additional paved surfaces must be on side or rear of property; separate entrance allowed for business), and other issues (no noise, smoke, heat, or dust; no adult businesses; no more than 3 customers/clients within 60 minute period; no signs or advertisements on property).

    It seems pretty fair. A person who wants to make Youtube videos professionally or cut hair can do it at home with minimal cost as long as the residence remains primarily a home.

  • CE||

    People should be allowed to do what they want on their own property.
    Let the property owners find the highest economic value use for their property.
    If you want to limit traffic and noise, form a homeowner's association with 100% sign-up.
    Separating industrial, commercial and residential zones is what cause traffic in the first place.

  • Johnniebgoode||

    And why do these law pass?

    Because of idiot neighbors like mine. Mr. I'm-the-Only-Employee-Home-Based-Business, who installs countertops. So there's his huge work truck, weighed down with counter tops, which he grinds, saws, trims, re-grinds, resaws, cuts, polishes, and reworks all day long.

    Now, about my neighbor who does bodywork in his driveway....

  • CE||

    I had one upstairs neighbor who made picture frames -- saw, hammer, repeat.
    Another cooked at home and made dishes with fresh coconut -- hammer, open, extract, repeat.

  • Echospinner||

    I work from home although there are no people coming in and out. Lots of people do, the federal government is actually a leader in workers who telecommute.

    Those I know who do run businesses from home that have customers are all the type that see them one at a time and by appointment so there is no traffic problem or drive by business. Accountants, hair stylists, therapists, wedding photographers, and those sorts of business.

    His small studio was like that from the description and there were no complaints from the neighbors so I do not see what the problem was. Being on google maps and having a website with rates is not like having a parking lot and a sign out front. This is clearly statist overreach on individual property rights.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Solution. Relocate his business address to a UPS Store and provide directions to his physical address on a need-to-know basis.

  • Devastator||

    Ridiculous, he was a good neighbor and making money and the government needs to keep their lame ass ideas about zoning out of a private residence. It would have been one thing if he was fucking with the neighbors, but he wasn't so let him have his music studio.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Maybe Capitalists need to observe an annual holiday so people notice that they have to do without goods and services when we are pissed off.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Maybe Capitalists need to observe an annual holiday so people notice that they have to do without goods and services when we are pissed off.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Maybe Capitalists need to observe an annual holiday so people notice that they have to do without goods and services when we are pissed off.

  • gormadoc||

    Squirrels never take a day off.

  • vek||

    I work from home. Other than getting a few more packages in the mail than your average person it doesn't really make much difference. I do have a couple guys that work for me part time who swing by, but it's so minimal I don't think anybody even notices. I'm pretty sure I'm by the books legal where I am, and if not I could easily lie about 1 or 2 small details and be legit and get away with it.

    I can understand the idea of not wanting a place where people are parking, and coming and going all day. So perhaps these dumb ass cities should revise their zoning laws to something more sane. No more than 3 employees or 20 customers in and out a day or something. That way it's reasonable, and easy to evade for most who go a touch over it, but if anybody ever did get too crazy with it they could shut them down. IE 15 people working all day and 100 customers running through or something.

    Even in a full on libertarian world most neighborhoods would probably have strict rules on this stuff. In this case we have to fight the guvmint to change the rules, but it's not much different than fighting an insane HOA or whatever.

  • gormadoc||

    In this case we have to fight the guvmint to change the rules, but it's not much different than fighting an insane HOA or whatever.

    Sure, but mostly in higher income areas, whose residents have other options for business locations. And at least that's consensual. In lower income areas it would not be feasible to have a heavy-handed HOA, which works well since they don't have much in the way of options for business locations.

  • vek||

    I don't know that that's the case. I mean obviously the full on libertarian solution of HOAs governing all land use would be preferable or whatever... But in such a world I don't see why poorer areas wouldn't have standards too. They MAY choose to be more lax, but lots of lower middle class people (maybe not quite so much for outright sketchy poor people) desire cleanliness and nice conditions as well.

  • CE||

    You probably get fewer packages delivered than my wife does, without a home business.

  • vek||

    LOL

    I was thinking about that possibility actually as I was typing that, but figured there was no point in mentioning how some very ambitious online shoppers might still get more packages than me!

  • Flinch||

    The Shaw story highlights an important flaw with way too many cities regarding zoning: deeds and titles issued are in fact state sponsored fraud, as the "owner" is not the one to exercise rights at the end of the day. And for this, we all get to pay rent in perpetuity, based on structures, not occupancy. People use services, property does not so... why are we "taxing" property? Oh, that right: with progs running things, property being a crime is on the tip of their tongue. It would be nice to jettison the marxists in drag and return to a day where property was honored - only going to court and showing damages could cause value to be transferred [in part or in whole].

  • Bubba Jones||

    If they aren't actually banning his work, and are only regulating his google address, then the solution is to set up a PO box that serves as his business address. Remove the connection between his online presence and his home address.

    My wife and I both work from home, but we don't publish our street address as a business address.

  • vek||

    Exactly what I thought. And I would imagine there is no legal reason he can't list rates as well.

  • Benitacanova||

    What with asset forfeiture, he was lucky to keep his house at all. What a world.

  • cravinbob||

    I just hope your U.S. Senators, Representatives and city councilpersons do not take calls at home or even have a little "office" in their house. I certainly would not think they dare to make or take a call in their vehicle(s) either. Nashville's mayor should be more than willing to allow inspections of his/her home during business hours on a regular but unannounced basis. We cannot allow door to door sales either and seeing that it is Nashville only headphones should be allowed and loudspeakers barred lest someone hear music from the neighbor's as that would be advertising a product plus an infringement on copyrights, royalties and whatever else one can dream up to kill the American Dream that is in its deathbed anyway.
    If you go to your local 1%er motorcycle club's clubhouse and have a beer they certainly cannot charge you for it but donations are appreciated...

  • Mark22||

    Fortunately, lawmakers are starting to develop more respect for private property rights.

    If you buy a property with existing zoning restrictions (e.g., residential use only), then enforcement of those restrictions doesn't deprive you of any property rights since you didn't pay for non-residential use.

    If you want zoning restrictions changed, make that argument to your local zoning board. It's not a matter for Congress.

  • vek||

    As much as I dislike most zoning regulations as they exist, this is also a valid point of view. People KNOW up front what they're buying. Deeds legally spell out the limitations as they exist, and you can generally try to get things rezoned if you want, but it's not a guarantee.

    Retroactive rezoning on the other hand is total bullshit, but the government does it all the time. That is not fair and should always be opposed.

  • KamaK||

    It's neat how we're trying to confuse "work from home" and "operate a business from a home".

    I like what you did there.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online