“One Dollar, One Dollar!” — Legalizing Street Vending in Los Angeles

Until this year, out of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the Untied States, Los Angeles was the only city where selling food or merchandise on the streets could still be charged with a criminal misdemeanor.[1] Under the current LA Municipal Code, the use of sidewalks for vending anything other than items protected under the First Amendment is banned.[2] The Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrant law enforcement has spurred the City Council to change this law; claiming a time-sensitive need to decriminalize the livelihood of many Angeleno immigrants, Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Curren Price submitted a proposal last year delineating a sidewalk vendor permit system for Los Angeles. After a period of public comment, the full Council adopted the amended proposal on January 31, 2017.[3]

On February 21, the Department of Homeland Security released its memo prioritizing the deportation of undocumented immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense,” “have been charged with any criminal offense that has not been resolved,” or “have committed acts which constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”[4] Two days later, the LA City Council passed an ordinance – with an urgency clause that makes it “effective upon publication”— to de-escalate the enforcement of this ordinance Violators of the ban can now only be penalized under the Administrative Citation Enforcement Program.[5] Although street vending is still technically illegal until the details of the permit system are formalized, this ordinance dissolves the threat of jail time and a lasting criminal record, replacing criminal charges with administrative citations that can be resolved by paying a fine. In order to further protect undocumented immigrants who have already been charged for street vending, advocates have also requested an amnesty clause expunging previously charged vendors. While the City Attorney’s office responded that such a clause was not under the jurisdiction of the Council, it did refer to the ability of individuals to petition to have their criminal charges removed from the record.[6]

 

A Brief Look at the Proposed System

The licensing system to be implemented will issue permits for stationary vending between 9am and 5pm in commercial and industrial zones, with a maximum of two vendors per block. This model was adopted over a district-based system, which would allow vending only in specific, pre-designated vending districts. Neighborhood councils in opposition to the proposal have argued that districts should affirmatively opt into the system. Northridge East, for instance, has requested that “before any such district can be formed, [each neighborhood council’s] approval shall be required.”[7]

Yet such a model has already been tested in Los Angeles. In 1994, LA tried unsuccessfully to create Special Vending Districts in commercial zones. The process of establishing a special vending district proved to be “too cumbersome,” and the only such district created – the MacArthur Park Special Vending District – is no longer in existence.[8] The proposal adopted in January is a blanket ordinance over all commercial and industrial sidewalks in Los Angeles, but includes a provision for the Council to create special districts for enhanced or reduced regulations. Other areas exempt from vending include alleys, city-owned property, and sidewalks that are too narrow to accommodate vendors without violating ADA regulations. Vendors in residential areas are limited to mobile carts, and must stay 500 feet away from schools unless they exclusively sell healthy foods.

 

The Business Interest

During the public comment period, 23 neighborhood councils submitted Community Impact Statements. The most frequently cited concern was the fear of negative impact on adjacent brick-and-mortar businesses. Westwood Neighborhood Council stated in its Community Impact Statement that because “sales taxes are not necessarily collected” from street vendors, brick-and-mortar establishments that do pay business taxes face unfair competition from adjacent sidewalk vendors – especially if those vendors are selling the same goods.[9] Some neighborhood councils argued for the exclusion of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), where property owners and businesses owners have to pay extra taxes according to the value of their property – fearing a situation where “BID’s have to pay for services and sidewalk vendors pay nothing.”[10] Street vendors operating in BIDs have had contentious relationships with these business lobbies in the past; in 2015, a coalition of vendors and advocates sued the Fashion District BID for coalescing with the LAPD to seize and destroy their carts.

The adopted proposal calls for a process by which BIDs would collect fees from street vendors. It also requires permit applicants to provide the address of their proposed vending location, a list of merchandise or food to be sold, and the written consent of the immediately adjacent business-owner. To spatially restrict vendor sprawl, each vendor is limited to three vending locations, and mobile vendors provide their exact vending route. The fourth recommendation in Amendment 30-A to the initial proposal included “economic” as an allowable reason to petition for special opt-out districts, along with public health, safety, and welfare concerns.[11]

 

Concerns of Street Vendor Advocates

 These restrictions have come under the scrutiny of street vendor advocates. In New York City, the Food Vendors’ Union and the Street Vendors Project claim that the Street Vendor Review Panel, created in 1995 to determine which streets would be closed to vending, have become mere agents who carry out “the bidding of powerful business interests.”[12] In 9 years, the Review Panel closed more than 130 blocks and opened zero streets to vending; vendor advocates fear that the same will happen if too many accommodations are given to the BIDs in LA.

Moreover, vendor advocates point to preliminary economic analyses that portray street vending positively. According to the 2015 Economic Roundtable report “Sidewalk Stimulus,” there are approximately 50,000 micro-businesses on the streets of Los Angeles every year, comprising an informal economy worth $504 million. Vendors make about $75 a day selling goods that they purchase from legal suppliers, and use that income on groceries, retail, and clothing, directly contributing back to the local economy (see Figure 1). Based on three case studies of Boyle Heights, Downtown, and Hollywood, the nonprofit research organization estimates that street vending creates 5,234 jobs by this reverberating multiplier effect (see Figure 2).[13]

Advocates also frown at the limit of two vendors per block, arguing that the concentration of vendors provide them with community solidarity as well as safety in numbers. For instance, in the Piñata district, there are easily 100 vendors lining East Olympic Boulevard on the long block between Kohler and Merchant streets.[14] Other cities that have implemented hard numerical caps on the number of permits have seen disparity between supply and demand leading to black markets. In New York, 70-80 percent of official holders of vehicle vending permits – of which there are only 2,800 available –simply keep renewing their permits to lease them out for $15,000 to $25,000 in a secondary black market.[15] Vendors pay 30-40 percent of their daily pay, which may be as low as $100 in certain areas, to the legal permit holders.[16] The waiting time for a new vehicle permit is now up to ten years – so long that the city rarely adds new names to the list.

In contrast, Portland’s cart vendors have naturally clustered around parking lot perimeters, unregulated by the city’s zoning laws. This has led to Farmer’s Market-style food cart pods, with each vendor paying a modest rent for a vending slot and infrastructure for electricity, waste disposal, and running water. The tight competition arising from the concentration of vendors has driven down prices and raised the quality, earning Portland the nickname of “cart-topia.”[17] Several councils, including the Empowerment Congress of Southwest Area, have endorsed this kind of organically occurring street vending zones.[18]

 

Enforcement Concerns

 But not everybody endorses such conglomeration. The Harbor Gateway North Neighborhood Council has cited the “creation of a blighted look to neighborhoods by the display of goods on fences” as one of its many reasons for opposing legalization, a concern echoed by several other councils.[19] To address this issue, the proposal calls for seven-day enforcement task force that will provide immediate and same-day response to complaint-driven reports about blight, noise, safety and health complaints. It also advises data collection for proactive enforcement in “re-occurring areas of concern,”[20] and suggests that vendors be trained to use City apps to report blight and crime.[21]

Across cities, the responsibility of enforcing the street vending rules has usually been consolidated in one agency, aided with licensing by different departments. In Seattle, the Department of Transportation receives complaints by email or phone through its Street Use reception line, which is staffed during regular business hours “by a live person.”[22] Inspectors are in the streets for the majority of the day, ready to issue written warnings for first-time infractions, monetary citations with fines that increase with each subsequent complaint. They can also revoke permits or confiscate equipment for more serious and repeated violations. Along with this progressive enforcement structure, the city has also experimented with random nighttime inspections which has increased regulation compliance; Los Angeles’ enforcement structure can be informed by these examples. Vendors in Portland, a city praised to have seamlessly incorporated vendors into its landscape, must display all these licenses, along with proof of a contract with a licensed disposal service[23] – an additional requirement that may assuage concerns that street vending creates “an unhealthy environment by generating trash, food and beverage residue… all in the public right-of-way.”[24]

 

The Devil in the Details

 The adopted proposal for Los Angeles recommends a health permit, business tax registration certificate, liability insurance, and ADA clearance to accommodate disabled pedestrians. During the permitting process, vendors must provide photos of their proposed vending locations for review, to ensure there are no obstacles such as fire hydrants or telephone poles.

But overly stringent requirements or prohibitive fees can backfire, encouraging vendors to find loopholes or continue vending without a permit. In Portland, strict requirements on gas canisters have led vendors to heavily favor push-carts over vehicles, limiting the range of foods that vendors can sell to heavily processed pre-packaged items. More directly, Chicago restricts food cart vendors to selling raw, uncut produce or frozen desserts, limiting their entrepreneurial potential.[25]

In New York, complicated rules governing where and when licensed vendors can operate have effectively closed off most of Manhattan to street vending (see Figure 3), creating “a strange hierarchy” of competition among the vendors. Vendors cannot sell within 20 feet of entrances or on sidewalks less than 12 feet wide, and have been ticketed for being inches off of the regulations. Inspectors are given significant discretion in applying the strict numerical standards, leading to inconsistent application of the law. Vendors fear that the LA proposal’s time limits – Monday to Friday from 7am to 9pm with “no vending allowed one hour before, during, and one hour after special events” – may become just as complicated as those in New York over time. In Manhattan, one cannot vend between E. 46th Street and E. 55th Street from 9am to 6pm on weekdays, but can sell anytime on the weekends, while on the adjacent streets from the 55th to the 59th Street, the no-vending times are from 10am to 7pm. Such un-intuitive requirements have given the areas with the most stringent requirements the nickname of “midtown gridlock.”[26]

Advocates of street vendors argue that these prohibitive fees for business and other licensing go against the spirit of the legislation to encourage micro-business, and expound upon the need to protect diversity and fairness of entry into market. This concern about over-regulation is reflected in some of the Community Impact Statements. Downtown Neighborhood Council’s position states that the purpose of the permit system should be to provide “an entry point for unsophisticated micro-entrepreneurs, should not be overly burdensome, and encourage participation from vendors of various economic backgrounds and capabilities so that they have a fair opportunity to become licensed and legitimate business operators.”[27]

The Arlington Heights Neighborhood Council stated that its constituents have “no faith in new rules and regulations being enforced” due to the lack of current enforcement of the present ban on sidewalk vending.[28] According to the City Attorney, of the estimated 50,000 vendors in Los Angeles, just 35 charges were filed in 2016.[29] Currently, the Street Vending Compliance Program of the LA County Department of Health has been in charge of inspecting and issuing public health permits to unlicensed vendors, as well as responding to reports of unlicensed vendors. But the program is run by a meager team of ten inspectors tasked with answering reports from the entire county; even its website apologizes that “[d]ue to limited resources, the size of county, and the number of complaints received each day, it may take some time to address each complaint.”[30] From the other side, street vending advocates argue that creating a permit system would digitize records of the sites of mobile food vendors, facilitating the enforcement of the new regulations.

 

Implementing the System

The Council admitted that the full permit system could take “months” to establish. Licensing vendors and policing the new regulations will require training new or existing administrative officials. The proposal aims for a self-sustaining system that will “require minimal assistance from General Fund;” the proposal suggests that the costs of enforcement should be paid for by a single fund sourced by the permit fees and penalty fines, which will then be used to pay enforcement officials. The Council also needs to determine whether the General Fund will subsidize permit fees for certain groups of people, and how Angeleno vendors, many of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers, will be informed about the details of the new permit system.

The city of Los Angeles is home to the largest Latino population in the nation.[31] Many are undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who continue to sell on the sidewalks despite regular harassment; they do not have much other choice, barred from most jobs due to lack of education or discrimination. These street vendors’ bacon-wrapped hot dogs, Mexican-style corn and tacos, discounted clothing, and seasonal trinkets have been a hallmark attribute of the Los Angeles streetscape for many decades. But in order to finally incorporate them into the official economy, regulations must be clear, concise, and consistently enforced. Late in the game of licensing street vending, Los Angeles has the fortuitous opportunity to create an efficient, effective sidewalk vending permit system informed by the mistakes and successes of previously implemented models in other cities.

 

 

[1]    “Street Food Vending Fact Sheet,” Occidental College, online at https://www.oxy.edu/sites/default/files/assets/UEPI/Street-Food-Vending-Factsheet-English-Version.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[2]    Los Angeles, California, Municipal Code § 42.00b (amended 2017).

[3]   File No. 13-1493 Public Works and Gang Reductions Committee Report relative to creating a sidewalk vending permit system, Los Angeles City Council, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_rpt_pwgr_01-18-2017.pdf (visited 5 March 2017)

[4]    “Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest,” Memorandum to US Customs and Border Protection, US Department of Homeland Security, 20 February 2017, online at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/21/us/politics/document-Trump-Immigration-Enforcement-Policies.html (visited 5 March 2017).

[5]    Final Ordinance No. 184765, Los Angeles City Council (2017), online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_ORD_184765_2-21-17.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[6]    Report No. R17-0045, Los Angeles City Attorney Office, 10 February 2017, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_rpt_ATTY_02-10-2017.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

 

 

[7] Community Impact Statement from Northridge East Neighborhood Council, 19 August 2015, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_8-23-15.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[8] Leslie Berestein Rojas, “Los Angeles outlines 3 possible approaches to legal street vending program,” Southern California Public Radio, 26 October 2015, online at http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/26/55201/los-angeles-outlines-possible-choices-for-legal-st/ (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[9] Community Impact Statement from Westwood Neighborhood Council, 11 February 2015, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_3-2-15.pdf  (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[10] i.d.

[11]    Amending Motion 30-A to CF 13-1493, Los Angeles City Council, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_mot_1-31-2017.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[12]    “Street Vendors Unite! Recommendations for Improving the Regulations on Street Vending in New York City,” Food Vendor’s Union and Street Vendor Project, pg 2, online at http://www.issuelab.org/resources/14908/14908.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[13]    Yvonne Yen Liu, Patrick Burns, and Daniel Flaming, “Sidewalk Stimulus, Economic and Geographic Impact of Los Angeles Street Vendors,” Economic Roundtable, 2015, online at https://economicrt.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/LA-Street-Vendor-Report-final-12-16-2015.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[14]    Abbie Fentreses Swanson, “LA’s Moves To Protect Immigrant Street-Food Vendors Come With A Catch,” National Public Radio, 16 February 2017, online at http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/16/515257761/las-moves-to-protect-immigrant-street-food-vendors-come-with-a-catch (visited 5 March 2017).

[15] Jose Peralta and Elise Goldin, “It’s time to act on street-vendor crisis,” Crain’s New York Business, online at http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20150810/OPINION/150819994/its-time-to-act-on-street-vendor-crisis (visited 5 March 2017).

[16] i.d.

[17] Rida Qadri, “Vending the City: Mapping the Policy, Policing and Positioning of Street Vending in New York City,” Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016, online at http://www.dlanc.org/sites/dlancd7.localhost/files/4.1%20Sidewalk%20Vending.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[18] Community Impact Statement from Empowerment Congress Southwest Area Neighborhood Development Council, 6 February 2017, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_2-15-17.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[19] Community Impact Statement from Harbor Gateway Neighborhood Council, 6 February 2017, online at  http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_7-15-14.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[20] Amending Motion 30-A to CF 13-1493, Los Angeles City Council, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_mot_1-31-2017.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[21] Joe Buscaino and Curren Price, Letter to City Council, 22 November 2016, online at http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_misc_v_11-22-16.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[22] Peter Hahn, “Street Food Vending Enforcement,” Seattle Department of Transportation, online at http://clerk.seattle.gov/~public/meetingrecords/2011/cobe20110713_4c.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

[23] Regan Koch, Licensing, Popular Practices and Public Spaces: An Inquiry via the Geographies of Street Food Vending,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, November 2015, online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1111/1468-2427.12316/full (visited 5 March 2017).

[24] Community Impact Statement from Studio City Neighborhood Council, 22 September 2014, online at  http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_9-22-14.pdf&sa=D&ust=1488749319194000&usg=AFQjCNFbf9XSDYoCTKfrZpcIpzi2ffgNbA (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[25] “National Street Vending Initiative: Chicago Food Carts,” Institute for Injustice, online at

http://ij.org/issues/economic-liberty/vending/chicago-food-carts/

 

[26] “Vending the City: Mapping the Policy, Policing and Positioning of Street Vending in New York City.”

[27] Community Impact Statement from Downtown Neighborhood Council, 9 September 2014, online at  http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_9-9-14.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[28] Community Impact Statement from Downtown Neighborhood Council, 20 August 2015, online at  http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1493_cis_8-20-15.pdf (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[29] Report No. R17-0045, Los Angeles City Attorney Office.

 

[30] “Street Vending Compliance Program,” County of Los Angeles Public Health, online at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/eh/SSE/StreetVending/strVending.htm (visited 5 March 2017).

 

[31] The Latino population in Los Angeles County outnumbers the white population as of 2015.

Javier Panzar, “It’s Official: Latinos Now Outnumber Whites in California,” Los Angeles Times, 8 July 2015, online at http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-census-latinos-20150708-story.html (visited 5 March 2017).

 

 

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