A city of L.A. proposal to decriminalize street vending and establish a permitting system for an estimated 20,000 vendors to be taken up by the City Council next month is getting a groundswell of support, though the haggling over the details isn’t quite done.
Some vendors have embraced the plan being drafted by the City Attorney’s Office in concept, but are balking at what they see as a limitation on competition.
Business groups that might be expected to object to formalizing the status of mobile vendors that could take away customers also see the proposal as a step in the right direction, though they too have their concerns.
“What’s been put forth is much better than what was put forth initially, which was unlimited, unregulated street vending, which is simply unacceptable,” said Downtown Center Business Improvement District Chief Executive Carol Schatz.
While some business leaders see a little regulation as better than none, aspects of the proposal do not sit well with Rudy Espinoza, executive director of street vending advocate Leadership for Urban Renewal Network. He objects to what might be the most controversial part of the proposal, a requirement that vendors get permission from the owner of the business or property where they intend to operate, as well as capping the number of vendors per block at two.
“That seeks to limit competition,” said Espinoza. “That’s not the role of government. If someone owns a small coffee shop, there’s nothing to say that Starbucks can’t come in and open a store on the same block.”
A spokesman for Councilman Joe Buscaino, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said the idea behind getting support from property owners is that they are legally responsible for the right of way in front of their business. However, Buscaino and Councilman Curren D. Price Jr., who together spearheaded the initiative, said they are willing to make changes.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere of goodwill between the vendors and brick-and-mortar stores,” said Price. “It was suggested that that was one way to achieve that. We’re open to suggestions.”
Schatz said she is worried about a lack of enforcement of the new rules. The Bureau of Street Services, which is likely to be the designated enforcement agency, has suggested having 17 inspectors, which she fears wouldn’t be enough in a city the size of Los Angeles.
“If not properly enforced – that means sufficient city funds for personnel to oversee vending – that is a huge problem,” she said.
Schatz also said the requirements for districts to opt out are too onerous. Under proposed rules, a district can apply to be a special vending zone if there are legitimate public health, safety, and welfare concerns that are unique to specific neighborhoods with special circumstances.
Schatz pointed to Portland, Ore., and New York as examples of cities with areas free of vending.
“No major city, as far as we know, has a citywide vending policy,” she said.
Buscaino countered that in a city where as many as 1 million people might be undocumented such an ordinance is a necessity.
“We are the lone big city in the country that doesn’t have a sidewalk vending policy in place,” he said. “The approach of having vending be illegal clearly doesn’t work today. … We know many vendors are undocumented – they’re the most vulnerable and are doing everything they can to make a living and put food on the table.”
Sense of security
Although the City Council attempted to address the issue of street vending two decades ago by allowing for the creation of districts where it would be allowed, that effort ultimately failed due to a lack of enforcement, said Buscaino. The council renewed its effort to address the practice in 2013, but that stalled until last month.
The councilman hopes to have a regulatory framework in place by spring.
“This is the first time we’ve come this close,” he said. “I believe we will get there.”
Merced Sanchez, a street vendor who sells clothes and sunglasses in the Piñata District in downtown’s Arts District, is happy the council is moving forward.
“You don’t understand the fears we encounter trying to build our businesses and support our families,” she said through an interpreter. “I’m much more at peace that something will happen and that we won’t have to be afraid when we go out.”
Because street vending is punishable as a misdemeanor, advocates are worried about President-elect Donald Trump’s threat to deport undocumented immigrants who have criminal records.
In its direction to the city attorney last week, the Public Works Committee asked that he look into creating an amnesty program for those with past misdemeanors as part of an ordinance to decriminalize street vending violations and establish a regulatory framework going forward.
Sanchez shares the concern with the urban renewal network’s Espinoza that the new plan could be overly restrictive, noting the proposed hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and the limit on the number of vendors.
“Where I sell, there are a lot of vendors on a massive block,” she said. “I don’t think limiting to two vendors per block will work there.”
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