Ari Meisel lives in a 4,000-square foot loft in a four-family co-op building in Soho—he also operates several green buildings, consulting and real estate businesses from the comfort of his own unit. He has lived in this building for his entire life, renovating the loft to accommodate his growing business. He holds meetings and occasional gatherings there, like the speaker event he once had with 30 guests. And in case you’re wondering, Meisel says his neighbors and the board don’t mind one bit.
According to the 2000 Census, there were 90,580 New Yorkers, like Meisel, who worked from home. And thanks to improved computer technology and the ever-changing economic and work landscape, that number has certainly grown exponentially in the interim decade. Factor in the past year, with layoffs, downsizing and cost-cutting, and still more people are either working from home or starting their own businesses.
Not Always Easy
Although Meisel was fortunate to have a long-term relationship in his building and the board and neighbors understood, there can be challenges between residents, staff and management when residents want to work out of their apartment.
Lynn Whiting, director of management at The Argo Corporation in Manhattan remembers one tenant—a voice coach—who chose to run her business out of her unit. She was in compliance with all zoning requirements, but management asked her to cease the business anyway after receiving noise complaints from other residents.
“The tenants had an objection because they could hear the lessons and the piano,” says Whiting. “It’s not that it wasn’t a permitted use, it’s just that it was objectionable to other tenants so the board had to stop it.”
Another tenant started making jewelry, a business that is considered a light manufacturing business and is acceptable under most regular circumstances. “However, we had some complaints because of the noise of the equipment they were using,” says Whiting.
Follow the Rules
In New York City, there are various restrictions on home businesses already in place that apartment-dwellers must follow, from location to size and, of course, what type of business it is and what they can sell.
For example, according to the Department of City Planning (DCP) zoning resolution, home businesses cannot sell articles produced off-premises; they can’t have outside signs or a display of goods that are visible from the outside. The business can’t store materials or products outside of a principal or accessory building or other structure; or in certain districts, display a nameplate or other sign except as permitted in connection with the practice of a profession. According to the DCP, “The business cannot make external structural alterations which are not customary in residential buildings, or cause offensive noise, vibration, smoke, dust or other particulate matter, odorous matter, heat, humidity, glare, or other objectionable effects.”
So what businesses can be run from a co-op or condo unit? Whiting says that therapy and counseling services are a good example, and some buildings do permit residents to conduct sessions in their home, but she adds, “Management and the board have to set some ground rules though, and not allow the lobby to be turned into the tenant’s own personal waiting room for their business. The business can’t be disruptive to other tenants.”
The resolution strictly prohibits advertising or public relations agencies, barber shops, beauty parlors, commercial stables or kennels, depilatory, electrolysis, or similar offices, interior decorators' offices or workshops, ophthalmic dispensing, pharmacy, real estate or insurance offices, stockbrokers' offices, and veterinary medicine.
Another example of something that definitely wouldn’t be acceptable is a daycare business. “A babysitter watching one child is acceptable, but running an actual daycare is absolutely unacceptable for a number of reasons, including fire regulations,” says Whiting. “That would be a business we would have to put an end to.”
In addition to any kind of employees, buildings also won’t allow home offices that require excessive deliveries. “It’s a disruption to the building and a burden on the staff to accept these packages and deliver them,” says Whiting.
Exceptions to the Rule
Although beauty parlors and shops are on the list as prohibited, a person with a flair for hair who wants to earn extra money by charging for haircuts in her home might be allowed to do so. Say that a fictional Ms. Smith owns one barber chair that she sets up in her dining room and she sees one client at a time. It’s not a regular beauty parlor—so will the building accept it?
Like many situations, whether or not this would work, says Whiting, “depends on the building, but I don’t think that would be objectionable as long as it wasn’t disrupting the building and the lobby doesn’t become a waiting area.”
Ideally, management and the board shouldn’t be making the rules as they go along. Instead, these rules and regulations involving home businesses should already be outlined in the bylaws and proprietary lease to prevent any issues that may arise.
“The parts of the proprietary lease are rules and regulations that give the board a certain authority to act and uphold the rights of neighboring apartments,” she says. “The boards and the managers also have the authority to amend the house rules,” and Whiting advises them to do so.
“Update the house rules, especially if you’re working off the boilerplate rules from earlier than the 1980s,” she says. “It’s a good idea to take into account a live/work situation and what would be permitted. Consider the traffic and hours of the business and what kind of work situations you allow in the building. Come up with a realistic plan.”
Home occupations that are sometimes permitted are things like fine arts studios, professional offices, one-on-one tutoring, and single-student musical instruction at certain times of day.
Clearly, consideration of one's neighbors is paramount in any work/live scenario.
“The best defense is good neighbor relations before you start,” says Paul Edwards, co-author of Working From Home in an article published in Business Week. Even if zoning itself isn't an issue, Edwards advises home office workers to minimize any impact their business might have on their neighbors by limiting traffic, noise, and other potential problems. “If you get a lot of deliveries, consider using a mail-receiving service such as Mail Boxes Etc.,” he says.
Another option is to split the cost of a commercial office space with other people who work predominantly from home and hold meetings or receive mail there. Having the support—or at least the indifference—of neighbors makes all the difference, Edwards continues. “You should research these matters before you begin working from home,” he says. “If you are relocating, along with checking zoning, make sure your next-door neighbor isn't the kind of local crank who constantly brings complaints.”
Even though the voice coach resident met all the city's legal requirements for running a home business, neighbors still complained, so something needed to be done. Whiting started by talking to the voice coach. She approached the jewelry equipment situation the same way by approaching the shareholder of the unit, who was subleasing it out to another tenant.
“The shareholder and the tenants were cooperative,” says Whiting. “They weren’t strictly working from home, so it wasn’t their only option and they ceased the practice.”
Consider the residents who want to work from home too. Meisel doesn’t need any special permits, since he isn’t manufacturing a product in his home office and doesn’t have a receptionist. “I think I’m the only one who works out of my space—meeting special functions that are business functions,” he says.
If possible, nip any problems in the bud by asking incoming residents if they work from home or have any plans to. If they answer affirmatively, management can address any potential issues with equipment, smells, noise, etc., right then and there. It might eliminate any problems with the home business later. Of course, not everyone knows that they’ll be working from home when they move in, so it’s important for management and the board to have instructions in place to deal with a new issue.
Don't Ignore the Facts
If management believes that home offices are not something that should be addressed now, consider this. Even back in 2000, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) estimated that home businesses accounted for more than 50 percent of all U.S. firms, and generated more than 10 percent of the nation's revenue. But remember, it’s been almost 10 years since this statistic was released and a great deal has changed since then. Boards and management should not ignore the fact that home businesses are growing and their needs, and the needs of the other residents in the building, need to be addressed.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and author living in Poughkeepsie, New York.