Yesterday was a victory for everybody trying to get their at-home coffee roasting business off the ground, or anyone who would kill a man to get a little bodega in their neighborhood.
In a 4-1 vote, the Seattle City Council's Land Use & Neighborhoods committee, chaired by Councilmember Dan Strauss, passed a bill that slightly amends the Seattle Land Use Code to make it temporarily easier for small business owners to create successful enterprises out of their own homes. The full council will vote on whether to pass the bill this coming Monday.
Brought forward by Strauss and co-sponsored by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Council President Lorena Gonzalez, the idea behind the policy is to bet on micro-businesses as a possible path toward economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19. If home businesses can earn enough seed money working out of garages, Strauss hopes they can "springboard" into brick-and-mortar spaces, fixing that blight of vacant storefronts MyNorthwest's Jason Rantz can't stop griping about.
Strauss wants those mythic Apple and Amazon rags-to-riches, garage-to-world-domination success stories, but for Seattle cider or hand-knit mittens.
The policy merges business interests and urbanist ideals, advocates argue. It facilitates entrepreneurism by allowing a business to thrive without having to worry about commercial rent, and it can allow more businesses to spring up in the places people live and recreate. Strauss boasted in the committee meeting yesterday that even Q13 reporter Brandi Kruse, a proud right-leaning centrist and council critic, likes the bill.
You know who doesn't like the bill? I'll give you one guess. Councilmember Alex Pedersen.
Even fellow skeptic Councilmember Debora Juarez, who was worried that the council was using the pandemic as an excuse to rush big changes, ultimately voted for the bill. The fact that it ends after one year helped ease her concerns. But, Pedersen doesn't like that there's a potential path to permanence.
While the bill sunsets next year, Strauss included a work plan in the policy to study how to make the changes permanent. The thing is, the bill isn't actually changing that much.
Seattle's Land Use Code already allows for people to have businesses in their homes, but the code is restrictive. For instance, under the code, customers can only visit home businesses by appointment, only two employees can work at a time, and anyone could file a complaint against the business if it's visible from outside the home.
Once issued, complaints can't be un-filed, Strauss said, and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) is required to check them out. That's what happened to Yonder Bar, the cider company selling drinks out of a Greenwood garage. Complaints from an upset neighbor—"How could they sell alcohol when there were kids just down the block! There are too many cars! The sign is too big!"—prompted SDCI to shut down the business, which led Strauss to pursue this legislation.
What Yonder showed Strauss, he told The Stranger, was that countless home-businesses in the city are technically operating out of compliance with these land-use codes. He refused to cite other businesses that would benefit from the policy for fear of "outing" them and opening them up to possible complaints. Juarez said essentially the same thing in the committee meeting yesterday, citing some home-based Lake City business that slings pies outside the rule of law.
The policy's rule changes would bring those businesses into compliance. According to a council memo, these are the rules that the policy suspends:
Customer visits are by appointment only There is no evidence of the home-based business visible from the exterior of the structure No more than two persons who are not residents of the building may work in a home-based
The home-based business shall not cause a substantial increase in on-street parking congestion
or a substantial increase in traffic within the immediate vicinity
Pedersen doesn't like that the council is passing this legislation "based on anecdotes or conjecture," since the businesses that could hypothetically benefit from the policy (other than Yonder Bar) haven't stepped forward.
And, while he loves small businesses for their "fun, flavor, and funkiness," as he wrote on his blog, he's worried the bill could create competition that would harm existing small businesses.
"I am very concerned that suddenly lifting restrictions to allow retail, food, and alcohol businesses on any block in our city will draw customers away from existing neighborhood business districts and their struggling small businesses," Pedersen said.
The thing is, Strauss's policy only impacts pre-existing businesses. The competition already exists. Home-based small business owners still need to obtain business licenses, as well as the appropriate permits if they're peddling food or booze, to make their business dream a reality. Strauss is making it so those businesses won't be shut down because their garage is being used as a storefront and not as a garage.
The rule changes just level the playing field so smaller businesses can get off the ground, as Mosqueda put it.
Pedersen's other big concern is that the policy will overburden SDCI, the city department in charge of moderating these businesses.
"It will distract a key city department from other important work," Pedersen said. "SDCI is already behind on improving permits and delivering an overdue ordinance to protect our trees."
Everything always comes back to the fucking tree ordinance, I swear. If that ordinance is changed the way the city's tree PACs (these people) want it to be—moving the goalposts on which trees can't be ripped out for development—then it will be more difficult to build new buildings in a city that is hurting for more housing. Pedersen's concerns and those of his NextDoor constituents always come back to these fears about changing neighborhoods. That's what I think his opposition to Strauss's bill is really about.
The rest of the Land Use & Neighborhoods Committee, save for a still-trepidatious Juarez, is keen on making this law permanent after the one-year pilot.
"Our land-use code shouldn’t be a barrier to creating a vibrant neighborhood and a strong economy," Strauss said.
Really, is this the future Pedersen is so scared of?