The Price of Doing Business
When a man's home is his office
July 15, 1992
One of only four such light pieces I did for Dan Haley’s Wednesday Journal. An eccentric choice for an archive of pieces about government, it verging on facetia, but Illinois local government verges on facetia sometimes too. Anyway, here it is.
A few weeks ago I received the application form for my 1992 Oak Park business license. The license is required of anyone engaged in, carrying out or conducting a "business, trade, calling, profession, exhibition or occupation" within the village limits. That is a comprehensive definition of "business" and under its terms the 10-by-10 room above the drugstore that I use as a workroom constitutes a business premises.
At first I was flattered. In the town where I used to live, what I do for a living was not deemed a significant enough threat to the public welfare (or a significant enough money-maker for the public treasury) to merit licensing. There, requiring a license of a freelance writer would be like making winos on the courthouse square take civil service exams.
Oak Park's regulations classify the magazine articles I write as "general merchandise," which is a more flattering judgment than some readers have made. My stock in trade is second-hand opinions, I reasoned, so why shouldn't I be classed on the village books with resale shops? I even added the words, "Licensed by the Village of Oak Park" to my business cards, by way of professional accreditation.
Even so, what I do certainly is not a business in the sense that it is a profit-making enterprise. Some people get audit notices from the IRS after the agency has read their returns; I get sympathy cards. The license adds $50 a year to my cost of doing business. I forget now the name of the guy who ran for the village board who pointed out that Oak Park's diversity policy made room for all kinds of people except those who used to be known as the decent poor. I wish now I'd voted for him. A plumber makes enough in one hour to pay for his license, while it takes me a solid day to earn that much, at least at the rates I am being paid for this piece.
Those 50 bucks theoretically recoup for the village the cost of inspecting my premises. Such costs consist mainly of the salary paid the fire inspector who drops by for a few seconds now and then to see if anything's on fire. Nice guy, but if he earns $50 for every such visit, his annual salary must approach that of a public school principal.
I can understand why restaurants should be inspected—it is my personal opinion that Granny's delicatessen burned down because some of Dino's gazpacho spontaneously combusted—and why banks should be inspected very carefully. But I keep no hazardous materials on the premises, apart from opinions, and the only citizen whose health is endangered by the practice of my trade is me; a caster keeps falling off my desk chair, threatening to pitch me over onto the floor and into disability, but no one from the village has ever asked to look at my chair.
In short, nothing goes on here that doesn't go on in hundreds of home offices in the village. The Oak Park of today has home offices the way certain of its neighborhoods had stills during Prohibition, and for the same reasons. The extra income earned from these upstairs-around-the-corner enterprises is essential to Oak Park's economy; without it, the home remodeling industry would wither, and au pair girls would be lined up at O'Hare's ticket counters like steel workers on the unemployment line.
The down-sized management guru, the merged-out-of-a-job financial wizard, the moonlighting tax lawyer, the academic-turned-consultant, the housewife-decorator all flourish in such quarters. But since home offices are not officially defined as commercial premises, they are not inspected. And since they are not inspected their tenants pay no license fees. The exemption favors people who own big houses with lots of spare rooms, but then most things do.
Business licenses should be required of all businesses in the village, no matter what kind of building they happen to do business in. But how will the village know which houses contain home offices? Unless the IRS rats on people who claim a home office deduction, the only way to find out would seem to be to put a police tail on every FedEx van that circulates in town.
The village might borrow a trick used by New York City zoning inspectors who, lacking the staff for a building-by-building search of old warehouse districts for illegal loft conversions, simply drove around and noted the addresses where they saw house plants hanging in the windows.
Village of Oak Park officials should look for open window curtains in rooms such as bedrooms that modesty would otherwise require be kept closed. I can't speak for lawyers or accountants or scholars, but I know that any room that has a past-deadline article manuscript in it is not a room that a writer will feel like having sex in. ●