Chicago business owners would be able to return to the days of living in the backs of their shops under a plan being pushed by a Northwest Side alderman.
The “business live-work” ordinance would vastly expand the types of businesses that owners and their families could reside in. It passed the zoning committee Thursday, and will head to the full City Council for consideration.
Sponsor Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, said he expects the proposal to bring people like accountants and clothing designers who now operate their businesses mainly on the internet from their residences “out of the shadows,” adding to the city’s sales tax base and helping address the glut of vacant storefronts.
“These are people who would love to be able to operate out of a retail space, but don’t have the money to pay rent for both an apartment and a business location,” Moreno said.
Moreno said he came up with the idea in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call for aldermen to think of ways to lower retail vacancies.
The ordinance builds on an existing city code allowing artists to live in their businesses. Under the proposed rules, owners could live in retail storefront buildings as long as they don’t involved the sale of food, drinks, firearms or tobacco, or involve childcare or massage services.
“It’s how Chicago was built: family in the back, store in the front,” Moreno said.
But it’s unclear how many small business owners would be eager to trade in apartments for commercial spaces, especially since the ordinance requires a special use permit from the city in most cases, as well as separate on-site bathrooms for the business and residence. It also could open the entreprenuers to paying more taxes than they do now.
A special use application is $500. But Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Economic Development, said the program is meant to promote small business growth and address retail vacancies, not raise money.
Ald. Timothy Cullerton, 38th, voted against the plan, saying it’s “a step backward to raise a family in the back room of a storefront.”
He pointed out Moreno’s proposal doesn’t establish how many members of a family can live in the business.
“I think there should be some limitation on the number of people that occupy a 400-square-foot space or a 500-square-foot space,” Cullerton said. “A guy comes in and says ‘This is my mother and father, these are my wife’s parents, these are my five kids and I’m going to sell socks, or whatever the case may be.’”
Moreover, the city’s building inspectors already have their hands full cracking down on illegal apartments built into the basements and attics of houses around the city, said Cullerton, a former deputy commissioner in the city Buildings Department. “Right now we can’t enforce the illegal conversion problem in my ward. I don’t know how we’re going to enforce this,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Buildings Department said the department believes the ordinance will not cause a burden on inspectors.
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