While working from home has become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, some Nashvillians had already been running a business from their home for several years.
However, due to a 1998 ban on home businesses serving clients on-site, some businesses have been shut down, usually after anonymous neighbor complaints.
A new ordinance in 2020 repealed the ban, but some Nashvillians say the stipulations on home businesses are still unfair. The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case later this year.
Pat Raynor was one of these Nashvillians with a home business affected by the ban. She’s lived in Nashville for over 30 years. After her husband died in 2009, she decided to open a home hair salon in 2011 for health and financial considerations.
Raynor was made aware of the client prohibition and worked with council members to try to pass legislation to repeal the prohibition. It failed.
“They pretty much said at the council, ‘If you do it, and no one complains, don’t worry about it,’ “ Raynor said.
Raynor then decided to get approval for her home salon from the Tennessee State Board of Cosmetology. She said she believed that the state’s approval would give her legal security. She put $10,000 into overhauling her garage into a home salon.
The board licensed her shop, and Raynor opened for business in April 2013. Clients parked in her driveway, and Raynor put out no exterior advertising on the property. None of her neighbors ever complained to her, she said.
However, in November 2013, the Codes Department contacted Raynor to tell her she was violating the client prohibition. It ordered her to cease her business.
“Lots of people were doing it. It was not a big deal,” Raynor said. “It’s only a big deal when someone turns you in to Codes, and they have to come out and shut you down. And that’s what happened.”
Raynor was told that her business was being investigated because of a complaint filed against her. However, the department couldn’t tell her who filed it. Raynor said she believes a former employer filed the complaint to be mean.
Raynor’s attorney, Keith Diggs, said that over 99% of complaints are anonymous. He also said that Codes inspectors admitted that large numbers of complaints are fake.
After being shut down, Raynor then had to rent a commercial space for her business.
A few years later, Raynor applied for a specific plan zoning for her home so that she could legally operate. It was denied.
Raynor and Lij Shaw, another Nashvillian affected by the ban, sued the city in 2017 with the Institute for Justice. A chancery court said the new law made the case moot, but the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to look at the case.
Shaw operated a recording studio in his home from 2005 to 2015 called the Toy Box. There, he recorded Grammy Award-winning performers like the Zac Brown Band and mixed an album that won the 2015 Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album.
He built the studio at his home so he could stay close to his daughter as she grew up. It was soundproofed and required no street parking. No neighbors ever complained to him, he said.
In 2015, he was informed that his studio violated the client prohibition and needed to shut down.
The Institute of Justice, which has been working with Raynor and Shaw, calls the client ban a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that’s only enforced by complaints.
According to Codes Director Bill Herbert, over 90% of enforcement on all codes ordinances comes from complaints because there aren’t enough inspectors to look at every piece of property around the county.
Herbert couldn’t comment on the specifics of this lawsuit due to continuing litigation, but he did say that Codes Department employees try to offer solutions to help people to come into compliance in a reasonable time frame.
“We’re not about punishment. We’re about achieving compliance,” Herbert said.
The Codes Department also doesn’t make the laws, Herbert pointed out. It enforces the laws Metro Council passes.
Diggs, from the Institute of Justice, said he didn’t believe that the new law made the issue moot because “six is not equal to 12.”
Diggs pointed out that most home businesses are limited to six clients per day, while other home businesses like day cares, short-term rentals and historical home venues have larger limits. The new law also has a sunset provision in January 2023. If the Metro Council decides not to renew it, it will expire.
Diggs said it’s unclear what the code would be if the law expires, meaning that the ban could potentially come back into effect.
Dave Rosenberg, sponsor of the ban repeal, said not allowing clients at home businesses didn’t seem to make sense.
“It instead seemed like a good idea to put some guardrails in place to make sure that residential neighborhoods remained residential,” he said.
He also said he included the sunset clause to allow the council to have another shot at the issue as some people thought the law was going to “end peaceful neighborhoods in Nashville.”
He said he expects it won’t be a problem removing the sunset provision.
As for Raynor, she’s back working at home, in part due to the pandemic.
“The mayor said go home and work, and a lot of us did,” Raynor said.
After the new law passed, Raynor went immediately to get her permit. She was told that the paperwork wasn’t ready. Now that she has the correct paperwork, she plans to file for the new permit next month.
Raynor said she thinks the new law has a great set of rules and that there have been no problems.
“It just needs to be passed completely finished so that people know that they can be at home under that set of rules, and it’s just fine,” she said.