Something liberals and conservatives can agree on

Liberals tend to dislike suburban sprawl and over-dependence on cars.

Conservatives tend to dislike regulations and lack of freedom.

Here’s a policy change that should satisfy both liberals’ desire for more walkable, self-sufficient neighborhoods and conservatives’ desire for more freedom.

The proposal  is to loosen zoning regulations so as to allow homeowners to open small mom-and-pop stores, eating spots, and production facilities in residential neighborhoods.  Such home businesses could be inside homes, in garages, or in  other attached structures.  We’ll refer to all such businesses as home stores (retail) or home businesses (including mail-order and wholesale). Another name for them is ACUs (Accessory Commercial Units).

In many countries of the world, people shop locally, by walking or biking to nearby shops.  Such a lifestyle cuts down on car use and provides livelihoods to locals, independent of national retail chains.

If I want to sell things from my home, why on earth should the government tell me I can’t, provided I sell safe products and don’t defraud my customers?

City ordinances often include requirements for parking near stores. Such requirements should be lessened or eliminated for residential home stores. Down with government regulation!

In fact, to avoid damaging the character of neighborhoods, and to discourage driving, the construction of extra parking lots should be discouraged rather than required.  In the words of Joni Mitchell, we don’t want to “pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

City planners often speak of mixed-used development and transit-oriented development. Such development is appropriate near transit hubs, such as the new light rail stops coming to the eastside of Seattle in the next couple years.  But such new development doesn’t fix the problems of existing relatively low-density sprawl in residential neighborhoods.  Home businesses partially fix the problems without substantially changing the nature of the neighborhoods.

Changing zoning laws to increase density in residential neighborhoods might be desirable as well. But that’s a separate, probably more contentious proposal. For example, homeowners could be allowed to turn attached structures  (e.g., Attached Dwelling Units) into apartments or granny flats, or to divide their properties into two units and sell or rent them.

By the way, this entire discussion makes it clear that conservatives’ opposition to regulation is selective, as it should be. Likewise, progressives oppose some regulations.  For example, conservatives often approve of zoning regulations that prevent construction of apartments or other high-density housing in suburban neighborhoods. They want to “preserve the character of the neighborhood.” Many homeowners associations have further restrictions. Liberals sometimes complain that such regulations increase sprawl and have a discriminatory effect on racial and economic minorities.

Conservative support for home stores is expressed in American Conservative’s Small Retail Can Make Neighborhoods Walkable.

For sure, home businesses are not a panacea, and it would take some time for their benefits to become visible.  But they are in the direction that society needs to move: towards more walkable, self-sufficient neighborhoods.

Possible problems.

For home stores to work well, it’s likely that housing density would need to be relatively high.  In low-density neighborhoods with huge lots, it’s unlikely that there would be enough customers within walking or biking distance to make home stores economically viable. If people need to rely on cars, then parking would be an issue. Likewise, neighborhoods with steep hills would likely not work.

Many Seattle residential areas are high density, with lots of apartments and small yards; such neighborhoods are good candidates for home stores.  Examples of Bellevue neighborhoods where home businesses would be feasible are Eastgate, Crossroads, and Newport Hills.

Another potential problem is: Can home stores compete with big box stores such as Walmart and Target, and with Amazon? Those stores have economies of scale and sell a wide variety of items. Of course, the economies of scale of the national chains come at a high cost:  ugly, soulless strip malls and shopping areas, as well as heavy traffic and loss of local control.  If society is going to successfully address the costs of transportation (pollution, carbon, traffic congestion, stress, and ugliness), incentives will need to change to make home businesses more economically viable. This will take time, and some people will resist the changes.

And for home stores selling groceries, what health regulations will apply? Will there be inspections?  Likewise, can homes open small eating spots and restaurants? Again, how can sanitary laws be enforced?  See below for more discussion of King County’s health regulations.

If the home shops do cash-based transactions, would that make it too easy for merchants to hide earnings and avoid taxes?  (I thank Jaye Sermeno for pointing out this pitfall with home stores.)  Perhaps cash-based transactions could be outlawed, though many people would oppose that. Or perhaps home-based businesses could be exempt from taxation for in-person purchases, up to a limit.

And how about delivery of goods?  Will truck traffic disturb neighborhoods? Can Amazon or FedEx do fulfillment of supplies for home stores?  Conversely, can local producers ship goods from home-based shops and sell them by mail-order, instead of by in-person retail?

Bellevue and King County’s regulations about home businesses

I emailed Bellevue City to ask about home businesses and related regulations. A Senior Planner from the Development Services Department of the Code and Policy Division responded:

Thank you for your message. Although they are not called Accessory Commercial Units (ACUs), the City does allow for commercial activity within residences under the home occupation regulations in Land Use Code chapter 20.30N. Certain requirements apply to home occupations, such as a maximum of 25% of the floor area dedicated to the commercial activity. Additional requirements and restrictions can be found in the Land Use Code (linked above) and at the Home Occupations webpage.

Additionally, because of your interest in potential code or policy changes, I wanted to point you to some information on the Comprehensive Plan update going on right now. This is a major update to the City’s guiding policy document, which will inform City decisions, including new codes and guidelines, in the coming decades. You can find information on this webpage on the update process, as well as ways to stay informed and involved as it moves along.

So, Bellevue already allows the use of homes for some private businesses. In order to realize the potential of ACUs, Bellevue’s regulations about home businesses would need to be loosened. The current rules specify that

  • The business does not involve automobile-related services, warehousing of more than 1,000 cubic feet of materials or external storage of goods.
  • The business is conducted wholly within a structure and utilizes no more than 25 percent of the gross floor area of the structure in which it is located.
  • No more than one person who is not a resident of the dwelling is participating in the business at the dwelling.
  • There is no exterior display; no exterior alteration of the property, including expansion of parking; no exterior sign other than business signage on the applicant’s vehicle; no exterior storage of materials; no other exterior indication of the business.
  • There is no structural alteration to the interior or exterior of the structure which changes its residential character.
  • There is no use of electrical or mechanical equipment which would change the fire rating of the structure or which would create visible or audible interference in radio or television receivers or which would cause fluctuations in line voltage outside the dwelling.
  • There is no noise, vibration, smoke, dust, odor, heat or glare produced by the business which would exceed that normally associated with a dwelling.
  • In addition to parking required for the residents, there are no more than two vehicles parked on or in the vicinity of the property as a result of the business at any one time.
  • There are no more than six client visits per day, and there is not more than one client on the premises at any one time. One client does include a family arriving in a single vehicle.
  • There are no more than two deliveries per week either to or from the residence by a private delivery service and no other use of a commercial vehicle other than that normally used by the applicant or an employee.

Homeowners need to submit a Home Occupation Permit and pay fees before being allowed to open a home business.

The regulations about “no exterior sign,” “no structural alteration,”  and the final one about limited use of delivery vehicles probably need to be eliminated or loosened.  As mentioned above, the restriction about no additional parking should probably be retained, to discourage driving.

The existing regulations already allow for some leeway and for considerations about the nature of the neighborhood, so that bigger and more impactful businesses might be allowed on less residential blocks, for example.

Building, electrical, fire and plumbing code requirements may need to be loosened as well, on the principle that the number of customers at the location at any one time is likely to be small.

King County is responsible for regulations about food establishments. The section on Catering and home-based food establishments is of particular importance. It says “It is required that a catering business be operated from an approved commissary kitchen.”  It also says that home food businesses need inspections and permits.

Food service cannot be approved in a home kitchen, unless there are two separate kitchens. A commercial kitchen must be totally separate from the kitchen used by the people who live there. An approved kitchen in a home would have to meet all of the requirements for any commercial food service. These requirements are detailed in the Food Service Plan Guide.

The latter Food Service Plan Guide is 22 pages long.  It has requirements for a handwashing sinks, a 3-compartment dishwashing sink, a dump (work) sink, and a mop sink.  Plan review fees are at least $900 for a new establishment.

How those food safety regulations should be loosened for ACU food establishments is a thorny question, since peoples’ health is at stake, but some loosening should be possible.  The situation is reminiscent of some federal regulations, which are so onerous that only large corporations can afford to follow them and to submit the required paperwork.

A friend wanted to start a home business making nut butters. He found that the regulations in Lincoln County, in east Central Washington, were more lenient than in King County, but there still was a requirement for a separate three-basin sink and a separate hand-washing sink.

Making it happen

I spoke to Bellevue City Council members Janice Zahn and Jeremy Barksdale. They suggested that any change to Bellevue laws and regulation is difficult, because of political division in the council.  In order for change to occur, there would need to be an organized public movement that the council members can rely on.

One step towards organizing such a movement is to get feedback from people, e.g., on, about how much interest there is in starting home businesses.  Anyone with interest in or comments about these issues is encouraged to email me at .

More resources

CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) is promoting ACUs. Here are some resources I’ve been seeing for re-introducing retail and light commercial back into neighborhoods. Urbanist Neil Heller coined the term ACU and has become known for promoting them in Portland where he lives.

An Introduction To The ACU

Best of 2020: Legalize Accessory Commercial Units

‘Accessory Commercial Units’ for a 15-Minute City

Accessory Commercial Units: Reintroducing retail to neighborhoods

Small Retail Can Make Neighborhoods Walkable

One-Stop Shops Can Change The Game For Your City’s Small Business Growth. Op-ed: Facilitating new businesses is crucial to your city’s economic growth.

Shaking hands, blue and red
Shaking hands, blue and red

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