According to estimates by the Bureau of Street Services, the city of Los Angeles is home to roughly 50,000 street vending operations. Three-quarters of these vendors sell merchandise such as T-shirts, cell phone accessories, or various bric-a-brac. The other quarter -- about 10,000 vendors -- are the ones selling foods like "street meat" hot dogs and tacos.
It's a huge amount of business, but the vendors are operating illegally. They also contribute a whole amount of money into the Los Angeles economy. Just how much?
According to a study by the Economic Roundtable, it's $504 million annually.
As the study puts it, this is important because of what it adds, economically, to the city:
Enterprise by Los Angeles street vendors has rippling effects across the local economy. As Los Angeles street vendors sell food and goods to passersby, the multiplier effects from the supplies they purchase and the income they spend accumulate and reverberate through the local economy, adding to the demand for goods and services from local suppliers. This translates into added sales and jobs for local stores, as well as other suppliers who help street vendors keep their carts in operation.
Of course, the big issue is that all of the transactions leading to this exchange of money are, according to the rule of the law, illegal. To Patrick Burns of the Economic Roundtable, this discrepancy is not only incoherent with the reality of the situation, but potentially dangerous to vendors.
"If you happen to be off the books and operating a vending cart, there is the potential for illegal activity, in terms of protection money, any scheme like that," Burns said. "That's less likely to be the case if vendors are brought into the fold and allowed to be out there."
Legalization of street vendors would also provide the workers themselves with something that they're currently in short supply of: peace of mind. "It seems like a good thing for people to be allowed to pursue that entrepreneurial goal without fear of having their cart confiscated," Burns said.
This mindset informs the two recommendations found at the end of the Economic Roundtable report that suggests ending all punitive policies towards street vendors and creating a permit system to legitimize vending businesses. "A round of regulatory oversight, maybe a licensing of vendors, would make sure there are health standards," Burns said. "And in terms of paying city and state sales tax department, that would be important."
All of which is to say, the system as it currently stands is broken. An entire section of the working force that contributes half a billion dollars to the city's economy is doing so illegally. There are two solutions, then. Enforce the law more consistently and end street vending. Or, tweak the law and make vending legal. For Burns and the millions who frequent street vendors throughout the city, the answer is a simple one.
"We think it's important in terms of the food culture of the city," Burns said. "It's part of the continuum that makes L.A. an interesting place to live."
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