Street Vendors Want to be Legal … LA Councilman Wants Time to Think about It

THE CITY-More than a hundred Los Angeles street vendors urged the City Council Economic Development Committee to legalize their businesses.  All they got after the two-hour hearing May 13 was a 90-day postponement by chairman Curren Price, who explained that the committee needs more information before recommending any change in the Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 42.00. 

His committee was acting on a proposed ordinance introduced by 14th CD Councilman Jose Huizar last November 6 which seeks "an effective regulatory system [having] the potential to protect health and increase public safety and economic activity."  Since then, both the City Attorney and the city's Chief Legislative Analyst have issued reports which point out more problems than solutions. 

Almost all of the three dozen vendors … who testified before the committee and were each given just over a minute to speak Spanish through the staff interpreter … stated that they need the income to support their families.  Most of them wore T-shirts or aprons proclaiming "Legalize Street Vending."  Some complained that fellow vendors had been deported as a result of being arrested. 

Committee member CD 1 Councilman Gil Cedillo remarked that "No one should be deported for selling food.  The challenge is how to do this responsibly."  Three representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department testified that enforcement has not been very aggressive because of lack of resources.  "We warn them, and if they are cooperative and move, then there's no citation," stated Rampart Division Senior Lead Officer Gutierrez.  Another reason for not arresting the vendors is that "the police do not have any facilities to store the vendors' equipment," such as cooking stoves. 

Two local neighborhood council presidents asked the committee to examine carefully the details and potential problems of any proposed legalization.  Patti Berman, Downtown LA NC, pointed out that it would cost the city millions of dollars to properly enforce any new regulations.  Nelson Castillo, of the Westlake South NC, complained that the neighborhood councils were not given enough advance notice on this issue, since the report of the Legislative Analyst was not released until the morning of the May 13 hearing. 

Several representatives of non-profit organizations testified in favor of legalizing the vendors.  Doug Smith, an attorney with Public Counsel, said that the vendors produce as much as $43-million into the Los Angeles economy, almost all of which is spent locally.  It is estimated that each street vendor earns an average of about $10,000 a year.  Clare Fox, Director of Policy and Innovation at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, also urged Los Angeles to follow the example of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, all of which have working street vending laws. 

Another community advocate from Highland Park who works with senior citizens, who, she stated, have limited mobility, said "Without street vendors, our seniors would go hungry.  This is a valid form of entrepreneurship.  But the vendors have to go thru too many hoops to be legal." 

A half dozen representatives of business organizations who testified listed a number of current problems, such as illegal dumping, trip and fall liability, lack of facilities for food handlers to wash their hands and the fact that the city does not have enough funds to properly regulate any liberalization or expansion of sidewalk selling.  Another question asked, but not mentioned in the CLA report, was the extent of gang extortion in the areas that have considerable street vending activity, such as Westlake and Boyle Heights. 

The history of the effort to control street vending goes back 40 years, when in 1974, the city council first approved an ordinance to prohibit street sales, only to have Mayor Tom Bradley veto the measure.  In January 1994, the Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance (number 169319) was enacted to allow selling in eight pre-designated areas of Los Angeles as a two-year pilot program.  When the "sunset clause" was removed after two years, it opened the possibility of creating these districts indefinitely. 

In 1995, the City Council approved a petition by the Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes (AVALA) to form the SSVD at MacArthur Park in Westlake, which allowed a maximum of 50 vendors.  There was a poor response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) to select a contractor to manager the project.  Finally, an expenditure of $235,308 was appropriated for a one-year management , and another $140,000 was paid to a local manufacturer to design and build 50 vending carts.  Fifteen vendors signed up and generated $3,589 in permit fees for six months.  The MacArthur Park SSVD was the only district formed, and it is no longer in existence. 

A January 9, 1992 City Administrative Officer report estimated that it would cost $1.1 million to fund a citywide street vending program for just six months.  That was over 20 years ago.  The just released CLA report fails to estimate the total cost in 2014 dollars, but does predict that just one SSVD program "would require approximately $500,000 in funding." 

There are other obstacles to surmount before City Council can approve one or more of these selling districts.  LAMC 42.00(m) requires the endorsement of 20-percent of local business and 20-percent of the residents.  Also, the merchants immediately adjacent to any sidewalk selling site must sign an approval for those sites, which could be rescinded within 45 days.  "An effective operation of a citywide legalized street vending program in Los Angeles would require coordination among law enforcement, Bureau of Street Services, City Attorney, Office of Finance, the County Health Department and community stakeholders," according to the CLA report, authored by Felipe Chavez, a city legislative analyst. 

During the next 90 days, after which the street vending proposal will be revisited by the Economic Development Committee, several city departments will be asked to report on the impacts of establishing a citywide program, including number of personnel required, a vendor fee structure, and revenue projections.  Another CLA recommendation would be to develop an educational campaign utilizing community stakeholders, possibly through their neighborhood councils.  The Food Policy Council will be asked to identify food desserts that are considered "healthy food vending." 

The Westlake North Neighborhood Council held a public hearing on the CF 13-1493 proposed ordinance last week, and after a spirited debate, five board members (a bare majority) voted to support the concept of legalizing street vending.  Most other NCs are expected to take up this issue during the next couple of months.

 

(Jennifer Solis and Randy Waller are the elected Secretaries of the Westlake North and Westlake South Neighborhood Councils, respectively … and are occasion contributors to CityWatch.)

-cw