The pre-COVID custom of Americans living in one place but working from another is historically unusual. As one scholar noted, “the phenomenon of leaving home to go to work did not become the norm until the Industrial Revolution.” Even then, home-based businesses never went away.
As states began adopting the Standard Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) in the 1920s, authorizing municipal governments to segregate noxious industrial uses out of residential districts, there always were accommodations for those working from home. By the 1950s, zoning ordinances reflected a consensus that “home occupations” were permitted by right in residentially-zoned homes. Unfortunately, home occupation permits were often reserved for “feminine occupations” and “high prestige” professions.
The disruptive events of 2020 have returned a wide swath of the American workforce to working from home. The percentage of Americans who commute to an office may never return to pre-COVID levels. But today’s zoning laws are relics of the 20th century. Too many home-occupation ordinances impose archaic restrictions on client visits, interior design, and other in-home matters that are none of the government’s business. Zoning ordinances should regulate neighborhood effects, not private conduct.
IJ’s model brings home-occupation ordinances into the 21st century by modifying the zoning enabling act at the state level.
Modern land use regulation is remarkably uniform in its general principles, and 47 states have adopted the SZEA in one form or another. IJ’s model makes modest changes to zoning law while clarifying that home occupations, so long as they do not disturb neighbors, are presumptively the homeowner’s business. By updating the longstanding practice of allowing home occupations as an accessory use in residential homes, IJ’s Home-Based Business and Occupation Act will provide certainty to residents and promote the return of working at home.