L.A. Changes Rules for Street Vendors Selling Outside Law

Roughly 50,000 vendors roam the streets of Los Angeles piloting pushcarts of bacon-wrapped hot dogs, spiced fruit, flowers, T-shirts and trinkets, or so city officials estimate. No one really knows how many there are, because they’re all technically illegal.

Los Angeles is the only one of the 10 largest U.S. cities that doesn’t permit street vendors, outlawed since the mid-20th century as car culture choked once-pedestrian-friendly shopping districts.

Under a measure approved today by the City Council’s economic development committee, street vending would be permitted again in the second-most-populous American city. The move recognizes the reality that thousands of people, many immigrants, are selling food, clothing and even pet rabbits everywhere from neighborhood sidewalks to touristy Hollywood Boulevard.

“The police are always bothering us,” Caridad Vasquez, 54, from the Mexican state of Colima, said in Spanish as she sold quesadillas near the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard. “They never give us a ticket. They just say we cannot sell here so we have to move.”

Regulations proposed by City Council members Jose Huizar and Curren Price, who represent parts of downtown Los Angeles and low-income neighborhoods to the east and south, would allow Vasquez and others to sell legally.

NYC Rules

The move would bring Los Angeles more in line with cities like New York, where the Consumer Affairs Department licenses general merchandise vending and the Public Health Department regulates food carts.

The council’s economic development committee voted to move forward with developing regulations after hearing from sidewalk merchants wearing “Legalize Street Vending” T-shirts and from owners of established businesses urging them not to lock in a competitive advantage for entrepreneurs who pay no rent, payroll or worker’s compensation.

Enforcement Questioned

“This city does not have the capacity to enforce much of anything,” Hal Bastian, a consultant to downtown developers, told the committee. “We can’t deal with narcotics in the public realm. What makes us think we can control street vending?”

Vendors are asking for a way to operate legally, to avoid crackdowns from police and extortion from criminals, Huizar said before the hearing.

“Vendors who want to play by the rules have no options available to them,” Huizar said at a City Hall rally with about 50 vendors.

Council members asked aides to look into the costs of enforcement, potential fines and whether the same rules should apply to food and non-food merchants.

‘They’re Surprised’

“These are good people who are trying to take care of their families,” Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, which advocates for L.A.’s vendors. “This is part of Los Angeles. When I tell people it’s against the law, they’re surprised.”

About 10,000 of the 50,000 vendors in Los Angeles sell food. The rest hawk products from T-shirts to turtles, according to a city report. In the year ended June 30, the Bureau of Street Services gave out 271 tickets for illegal vending; since July 1, 286 citations were issued for the misdemeanor violation, the report said.

Los Angeles has experimented with legalizing the street vendors before. In 1996, the city established a sidewalk vending district near MacArthur Park, a Latino immigrant hub west of downtown. The effort failed because regulators didn’t crack down on illegal rival vendors outside of the district, according to the city report.

Merchant Opposition

Some brick-and-mortar businesses want to keep the vendors illegal. Kent Smith, who represents about 4,000 businesses in downtown’s Fashion District as head of its business-improvement group, said the carts clog sidewalks and force shoppers into the streets with traffic.

“Why are we making it easier for a plethora of vendors to set up shop in already congested neighborhoods?” said Smith, who said the most heavily traveled blocks of the Fashion District attract as many as seven street vendors at once.

“We are overwhelmed by the number of mobile food vendors in our district, particularly on Saturdays. You have a recipe for non-use of our sidewalks by pedestrians.”

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