Friday, September 12, 2014

The Real State of Dunwoody Home Businesses

Whenever a Dunwoody politician or personality wants to score some points with the community, they rail against home businesses.  It's the usual go-to whipping boy when anyone in office wants to show off how much they "support" the community.  Exaggerations and hearsay and outright lies are all fair game.  And because these business owners want to avoid negative exposure, they just keep their heads down and wait for the usual storm to blow over.  Some have gone so far as to change their official business address to hide the fact that they work from home.  Others take advantage of the numerous loopholes introduced by City Council.

Then those same elected officials solicit their votes come election day, with tales of how said official "protected their rights".

But what kind of negative impact do home businesses have?  Is there a negative impact at all?  How many home business owners actually get complaints filed at code enforcement?

No one at the city - especially the politicians - are very forthcoming with that answer.  So I decided to find out exactly what is the state of home businesses in Dunwoody and quantify the results in a visual form that cannot be exaggerated for political gain.

I started making Open Records Requests with City Hall in June.  First, I requested the name and physical address (as opposed to the mailing address) of every business license in the city.  I sorted the list and confirmed the location of every business that is located at a residential address.  (Dunwoody's Occupational Tax Certificate application makes it clear that a "physical address" is the actual place where business happens.  So if a license is issued to a home address, that means "commercial activity" of some type is occurring there.)  

Then I searched the State's LLC registration database.  Sometimes an LLC is registered to a home address but a business license isn't filed.  There are all kinds of reasons for that, and it's impossible to determine which reason applies to which business.

Finally, I found a number of websites promoting businesses inside Dunwoody city limits where the contact information was a home address.

I took all of these addresses (all 680 of them) and plotted them on an interactive map.
Here is is:  The only official Dunwoody home business map.

Note that this map is an underrepresentation of actual commercial activity.  It is not possible to take into account home-based tutors or educational enterprises (legalized without permits last year) or MLM-type sales (Avon, Tupperware, Origami Owl) etc, which are known to maintain at least "stock in trade" at their homes, receive deliveries, employees, etc.  So the actual measure of residential commercial activity is greater than what can be documented here.  

The next ORRs had to do with code enforcement complaints.  I requested a list of all code enforcement complaints in residential areas starting around 2010 (when the database took on some kind of recognizable form and was searchable).  These results were reviewed and all complaints related to home business activity were matched with the locations of known home businesses.  The result is this page on the DWG blog, differentiating types of complaints - confirmed vs unconfirmed also plotted on the map by address.  The most recent ORR related to complaints includes information up through August 31 of this year.

Why are complaints restricted to those submitted to code enforcement?  Because they can be independently verified.  There's always scuttlebutt about this neighbor or that and what they are doing or not.  Some of this talk may be about a legitimate code violation.  Or it may be neighborhood gossip, or an honest misunderstanding.  Or a dishonest neighbor feud.  Unless a complaint is recorded and evaluated independently, there's no way to tell the difference.  

Here's what we learn from the research and the resulting map:

Every neighborhood, zoning designation, and housing type is saturated with home business owners.  Many of these see customers or employees regularly and these visits do not result in code enforcement complaints.

Home businesses represent 25% of all business licenses issued by Dunwoody.  That's up from 20% three years ago.  Home business ownership and activity is a clearly well-established element of both residential and business communities and continues to thrive without major incidents or complaints.  

Despite claims to the contrary, this growth in home business activity has not changed the nature of any residential community.  Those who claim they "want to know" in advance of a home business with customers getting established in proximity of their homes are blissfully unaware (or blissfully aware...) of the customers currently doing business in their neighborhoods right now.  

Code enforcement has documented a total of eight complaints related to alleged home business activity.  Out of these complaints, only two were confirmed.  Of these two, one involved a "commercial" vehicle parked in front of a residence which was resolved.  The other is the only incident of clear neighborhood nuisance, and predates the incorporation of Dunwoody.  The case has been slogging through court proceedings since early 2008.

It's not just that complaints about home businesses are not substantiated, the complaints just aren't getting filed.  Homeowners dime each other out when the grass in the yard gets too tall; so problems with home businesses are either non-existent, or they are resolved without getting the government involved.  

There are two homes that received SLUP permits since Dunwoody incorporated (lavender markers).  Each of them had a parade of fearful homeowners lined up to object to their permits.  However, since the permits were granted, neither home, nor the home businesses around them, have received any complaints.  That means, the homeowners who expressed dread about these businesses haven't filed any complaints after the fact.

If you cross reference the minutes and video from the SLUP hearings with the home business listings noted on the map, you'll see that some of those who complain the loudest about home business operation, have established home businesses of their own!!   Still other complainants are home business customers, either directly or indirectly, and are business customers in residential areas.

For the first time we can now visualize what home business activity looks like in Dunwoody.  It has not changed any community's or neighborhood's nature.  It does not generate a deluge of code enforcement complaints.  Home businesses are not a threat to neighborhood quality.  Neighborhoods do not require "protection" from them.  Otherwise there would be many more complaints.  I'm sure that after this article posts, there may be a bump in complaints submitted.  That's happened before:  someone realizes how few home business complaints are made and go out of their way to boost the numbers.  We'll find out in the coming weeks as more ORR reports come in.

But most of all, officially-sourced railings against home businesses and their owners are not to preserve neighborhoods.  They are to promote political "street cred".  Keep that and the above visuals in mind the next time the subject comes up at city hall.

Enjoy!  And Happy Friday!