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Making it Official: How L.A. Street Vending Became Legal

Pinata District street vendors | Samantha Helou Hernandez
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"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody," Jane Jacobs, acclaimed journalist and urbanist, once wrote. Jacobs stressed the importance of active sidewalks and daily interactions with those around us in what she described as the "ballet of a good city sidewalk." In Los Angeles, no group represents this idea better than street vendors. Filling streets with the smell of grilled meats, makeshift lights and chatter, these small business owners activate our streets, provide culturally relevant foods that tourists flock to and create opportunities for a diverse group of people to interact with each other. 

A Pinata District taco vendor | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A Pinata District taco vendor | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Aside from cultural relevance, this once informal economy generates $517 million in economic stimulus and provides a revenue stream for the newly immigrated, veterans and people who are otherwise shut out of opportunities. Vendors also energize lonely city streets, therefore making them safer, while also increasing revenue for nearby brick and mortar businesses — essentially contradicting the argument that street vendors take away business. 

Luis Perez Gomez | Samanta Helou Hernandez
“I only do this to survive. To support my family,” said Luis Perez Gomez, who sells potatoes and chicken from a customized cart that was a desk in its previous life. He came to the U.S. just over a year ago because his life was threatened in Guatemala. “If you don’t allow people to live off your work for free, they come and kill you. I used to do very well over there, but one day I got threatened.” After this and the death of his three-year-old daughter, his wife decided to leave. “The sadness was too great, so one day we decided to leave. That’s why now, I’m here, fighting." When he got to the U.S., he worked in construction, but stopped after a couple of months. “It was dangerous. One time, I almost fell off a building.” When people used kick him off street corners, he said he would just say “God bless you,” and leave. “Eventually, I’ll find a place where they won’t kick me out.” Going back to Guatemala is not a choice. “I had everything I wanted in Guatemala, but the fear of going back is awful. They would kill me the second I got back. So, all I want to do is sell and keep working until God stops me.” He hopes to find a place to rent where he can open a small restaurant.  | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Maria García | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Maria García, who is from Guadalajara, Jalisco, has been selling makeup on Alvarado Street and 6th Street for around one year and a half. “I love my business, what I sell and the customers. I’m happy doing this. All women love to look beautiful, and makeup always sells.” She said she happened upon her current spot as she was taking a walk with her grandson. “I asked around and got lucky. I got a small space to sell, and now we have the city’s blessing.” She said working on the street is definitely dangerous, but it has gotten safer now that the city has legalized the practice. “Now with the police protecting us here, it’s a lot safer. Before, the police used to chase us around and take our things and ticket us. Now, that doesn’t happen.”  | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Ronnie Banks | Samanta Helou Hernandez
L.A. native Ronnie Banks has been selling headphones and snacks on the Metro since 2012. He said he enjoys the freedom of setting his own hours. Like many street vendors, he has had his share of run-ins with police. “I’ve gotten arrested before and when they arrest you, they throw away all your perishables. So, if you have a whole bunch of chips and a whole bunch of candy, they’re going ahead and throwing it all away.” The interactions with people are what he likes the most about his job, even when days get difficult. “I’m homeless. I’m choosing to build myself up and get myself together.” His headphones, like the ones he sells, come in handy. “Sometimes when I have things to deal with, I just put my headphones in, and it melts away. I’m dealing with a whole lot of things right now.”  | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Caridad Vásquez | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Caridad Vásquez has been selling Mexican food on Breed Street for 15 years. “The food we sellers make identifies our culture.” Even though she has been selling food all her life, adapting to the U.S. was complicated because when she started vending, street vending was still criminalized. Police would take down vendor stalls indiscriminately and handcuff vendors. “We could never become formal restaurateurs because since the police took our things, we would have to try very hard to buy more supplies so we could continue selling.” She said she is grateful for all the support she and her fellow vendors have gotten. “I never thought California would pass a law that would let us sell. We started this fight 10 years ago and we’ve proved it’s possible. Sí se puede.” |  Samanta Helou Hernandez
Olivia Camacho | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Olivia Camacho, who comes from Mexico, sells water and shoes on the street. “I’ve spent 18 years selling on the street, fighting. We used to be on the street, but now, we have a roof over our heads.” She started vending because what her husband earned was not enough to support the family. “Us women shouldn’t depend on men.” She got involved in the legalization movement because people noticed she was a fighter. “I care that my paisanas have a safe place to sell so we can support our children.” Now, she serves as a street vending coordinator and watches over her fellow vendors. “Police used to chase my cart. I had to pay five or six tickets of $250 per ticket, sometimes even $500 tickets because they didn’t let us sell. We used to see police and run. They would catch up to us and throw our things away. Now, the police protect us.” She likes being her own boss the best. “Some bosses abuse us. Here, this is all mine, and no one can tell me what to do.”  | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Oscar Rogel | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Originally from El Salvador, Oscar Rogel has been living in the U.S. since he was 10-years-old. He sells pet supplies on the street and is part of a committee of vendors. “Before, it was difficult because we had to worry about thieves, gangs and running away from police. They took me to jail twice. It was shameful. They treated us like criminals. You had to fight for your stand. Sometimes people would get stabbed, but now, everything has changed for the better.”  | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Despite the contributions of an estimated 50,000 vendors in Los Angeles, it wasn't until November of 2018 that the city legalized street vending after decriminalizing it in 2016, following Donald Trump's election. Prior to decriminalization, vendors faced harassment, confiscation and even arrests, putting this often undocumented sector of the informal economy at risk of deportation. In 2013, there were 1,235 vendor arrests, according to a report by the city's chief legislative analyst. 

While talks around legalizing street vending go back decades, the current legalization movement was largely influenced by vendors themselves. In 2008, fed up by the constant threat to their livelihood, they approached East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC) — a community development organization based in Boyle Heights — for help. This sparked a lengthy (and ongoing) process that has taken over ten years.  

Motivated by a desire to support marginalized entrepreneurs in their communities, four organizations came together to create the Legalize Street Vending Campaign: Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN, now called Inclusive Action for the City), an organization focused on economic development and advocacy for low income communities, ELACC, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and Public Counsel, a non-profit public interest law firm. Vendor leaders were quickly brought into the fold to form part of the steering committee to advocate for legalization. 

"It's almost like the Avengers where everybody was doing their own thing and came together in this workgroup. Everybody in this workgroup had their own superpower," said Rudy Espinoza, LURN's executive director.

Rudy Espinoza, LURN's executive director | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Rudy Espinoza, LURN's executive director | Samanta Helou Hernandez

ELACC's superpower was the ability to organize vendors using their strong community ties. LURN focused on supporting vendors from an economic standpoint, while also being the liaison between city officials and vendors. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council looked at ways legalizing street vending could increase access to healthy food, and Public Counsel focused on the legal and policy tools to support the movement.

The first step was to hear from the vendors themselves. The coalition held town halls all over the city from 2011 to 2012 to better understand the challenges and desired changes from people on the ground. "The result was amazing ideas of how to develop a system that works in the city," Espinoza said. They presented their information to city council members in 2012 and 2013 to find champions for their cause, which they eventually found in councilmembers Curren Price and Jose Huizar. Because councilmembers in Los Angeles wield most of the legislative power, finding allies in city council was vital. In 2013, Price and Huizar introduced a motion to look into what legalizing street vending might look like. "It was very non-committal, very broad, but it was important because that's the first step in the legislative process," explained Doug Smith, an attorney at Public Counsel who, alongside Katie McKeon, another attorney, was instrumental in drafting a policy proposal with vendors.   

The motion was approved and assigned to two committees within city council, the Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilman Price and the Public Works & Gang Reduction Committee, chaired, at the time, by Councilman Joe Buscaino. It was then up to the chief legislative analyst to provide a preliminary report to the Economic Development Committee including a comparative analysis of how street vending works in other cities (Los Angeles was one of the only metropolitan cities in the U.S. without regulated street vending). After reviewing this research, the committee requested another report with recommendations for a vending program in Los Angeles. 

It was during this process that the Legalize Street Vending Campaign decided to draft a vendor-led policy proposal under the guidance of Public Counsel. Doug Smith, who specializes in anti-gentrification work, joined the campaign because of the connection he saw between legalizing street vending and anti-gentrification efforts. He sees disinvested neighborhoods greatly benefiting from vending as a source of culturally relevant food, fresh fruits and vegetables and critical sources of income for the disenfranchised. But when real estate speculation attempts to attract a different population, street vending no longer fits the aesthetics the speculation is trying to promote. "That's when vendors become vulnerable to criminalization and other tactics to try to sort of move them out of that space to make room for a different type of community," Smith said. "[Through legalization] there's an opportunity to create more legitimacy that can prevent some of that."

A Pinata District chicharrón vendor | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A Pinata District chicharrón vendor | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Vendors had a choice to either wait and see if the policy drafted by city council fit their needs, or to have a more active approach in a regulatory system that affected their livelihoods. "They realized city council members aren't street vendors, their staff aren't street vendors, city officials aren't street vendors, vendors are the actual policy experts here," explained Smith. "Instead of hoping that the city would come up with a good policy and then apply it to the community, they wanted to flip that model and create our own policy. That was the first moment where I was able to plug in any sort of support into this vendor-led participatory policy process."
Smith gathered notes from town hall meetings and created a policy outline based on vendor input. This created a tool for vendors to use during their advocacy with city officials. Hand in hand with creating a vendor-led policy tool was training vendors on the legislative process and guiding them during meetings at City Hall. The campaign doubled as a training ground for vendors to learn leadership and organizational skills. Vendor leaders from across the city were active in the committee's process, reacting to every report with their recommendations and appearing at meetings to tell their stories. 

Learn more about street food

This back and forth bureaucratic process between the chief legislative analyst and the Economic Development Committee lasted two years. When the report finally left the Economic Development Committee and made it to the Public Works committee, it remained without action for a year. "It's easy to punt something that's not a priority. Often our elected officials don't prioritize the poor," Espinoza said. "It's a constituency that may not vote. They don't have political clout to advance their agenda. The organizations that are advocating for them are not funded." 

But then something happened. President Trump was elected in November of 2016. His anti-immigration rhetoric provided an opportunity for elected officials to show their support for a fearful immigrant community, and legalizing street vending was the perfect vehicle to do so, given that it was already researched and in committee. Trump's executive order stating that anyone charged with a crime was priority for deportation created the necessary pressure for full council to vote swiftly to decriminalize street vending in February of 2017.

Decriminalization meant that vendors could no longer be arrested or charged with a misdemeanor for vending, but could still be given citations. Vendors were then left in a gray area where they could still rack up tickets for vending illegally. 

As the Legalize Street Vending Campaign continued to push for full legalization, the city brought forth policy details that worried vendors. These included two-vendor-per-block caps, the ability for property owners to veto street vending in front of their businesses and vending restrictions in sections of the city. 

A particularly worrisome section of the city up for restriction was the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an area many vendors depend on for income. The Hollywood Entertainment Business Improvement District vehemently opposed vending on the Walk of Fame, arguing that vendors created a safety hazard in an already crowded and hectic area. 

Kerry Morrison, former executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance, saw decriminalization as creating a sort of free-for-all that would get out of hand in the cultural landmark. "Dozens of vendors lined up one after another encroaching upon the stars on the Walk of Fame, encroaching upon bus stops, right up against the crosswalk," Morrison said, as she scrolled through photos of these instances on her phone. "Once they took away the enforcement mechanism, the freeloaders overwhelmed the legitimate food vendors."

While she said she understands that decriminalization protects undocumented workers, Morrison said she believes that stronger enforcement needs to exist for non-complying vendors. "There has to be enforcement with teeth," she said. "We've got everything else going on here from tour buses hawking tours .... The characters are still out there. The C.D. vendors are still out there. We got food trucks parked out here. It's not an experience you would find pleasant at all. And it's not safe."

For Morrison, even if a special vending district was designated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with special rules, it wouldn't account for vendors who decide not to comply. "Even if you were allowed to have like two people on each corner, what's to keep all these other people from showing up and crowding you out?" she asked. "There's no conceivable benefit to not holding onto the exemption. There's also just no public safety benefit. None whatsoever."

Meanwhile, the street vending campaign found other options besides outright bans as more beneficial. They advocated for health and safety concerns as reasons to create caps instead of arbitrary numbers.

The campaign got their champion at the state level when Senator Ricardo Lara, now California's insurance commissioner, expressed interest in introducing a bill that would decriminalize street vending across the state and set forth regulatory measures. The bill, titled SB-946, essentially did those things, while also providing an opportunity for vendors with prior offenses to have their records expunged and pending cases to be dismissed automatically. Smith recalled a moment when 50 vendors showed up for two consecutive council meetings over the course of two days, told their stories, then boarded a bus to Sacramento. "They got up and went to the Capitol and met with every legislator and told their story and testified in front of a committee hearing and the assembly on SB 946," he said. "They did really incredible advocacy to scale up and move the conversation to Sacramento as well."

Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in September 2018. SB-946 laid out clearly that any restrictions to vending had to have a clear health and safety reason. This virtually eliminated the ability for Los Angeles to institute arbitrary caps and exclusions. After the bill passed, Los Angeles was swift to approve regulations and finally legalize street vending in November 2018. "Honestly without this bill, I think that we would have still been stuck between the two committees on the third round," Espinoza said. 

There are two ways to regulate vending: one is to pass rules and regulations that, if followed, allows vendors to sell legally; the other is to establish a permitting system. In November, only rules and regulations were approved. The city hopes to establish a permitting system in 2020 to further legitimize vendors and create an opportunity to raise funds from fees that can go towards education. 
The regulatory system that passed includes various spatial rules for vendors to follow, but it also restricts vending in parks to two vendors per acre and created seven areas of the city where street vending is banned within 500 feet. These areas include Dodger Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, Staples Center and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

A Pinata District street vendor | Samantha Helou Hernandez
A Pinata District street vendor | Samanta Helou Hernandez

During a celebration following the legalization, a vendor who has made a living in Hollywood for 20 years tugged at Rudy Espinoza. She asked him what happened with Hollywood. "Well unfortunately, while all this other stuff passed, they also passed restrictions on Hollywood Boulevard," Espinoza explained to the vendor. "She was not celebratory," Espinoza said.

The restrictions were passed due to arguments around safety concerns in heavily trafficked areas of the city. The Legalize Street Vending coalition has plans to advocate against these restrictions and instead come up with a plan that works with vendors rather than exclude them from the conversation.  

"We definitely recognize there's issues with vendors who won't comply," said Carla DePaz, the Director of Community Organizing at ELACC. "There's about 25 vendors who have created their own informal rules, and they were doing a good job in keeping order, but unfortunately the city moved forward with Hollywood as a non-vending zone, and it halted the conversation. If they were given support and validity as vendor leaders and support from the city, then it would easier for them to talk to vendors that don't want to comply." 

Carla DePaz, Director of Community Organizing at ELACC  | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Working with vendor leaders in Hollywood and creating a special vending district with unique rules for the Walk of Fame are options the Legalize Street Vending campaign is pushing for instead of complete exclusion from a source of income many have come to rely on. "I think that there's creative things that we can think about as opposed to just scapegoating the poorest of the poor," Espinoza said. 

The next steps for the campaign are to support the vendors with meeting the needed requirements to vend legally. In order to obtain health permits, many vendors will need to build new carts, rent commissaries and use industrial kitchens instead of cooking their goods at home. There's a need for funding to help vendors pay for these added costs, in addition to permit fees. Now, the four organizations are focused on creating educational materials, loan funds, incentives for healthy food vending and finding ways to develop space for vendors to use as industrial kitchens. "We have an opportunity to build new commercial kitchens. That's jobs. We have an opportunity to build commissary spaces. That's jobs. Cart manufacturers, huge. There's only a couple in the city," Espinoza said. "This is a huge opportunity for us."

While decriminalizing and legalizing street vending was a huge victory for the coalition and the vendors involved, perhaps the most poignant win was the leadership-building the campaign instilled throughout the advocacy process. "They've been able to build power, to have a voice as one of the most marginalized groups of people who are working in our city," explained DePaz. "No matter how the rules and regs get implemented, they have put themselves in a position where now they have a voice and can lead."

Many of these vendor leaders are now equipped with the tools to continue organizing. "The goal was about achieving the policy wins in a way that sort of builds this community leadership that can be sustainable for the next issue," Smith said. 

Symbolically, legalization is a step towards creating a city that's for and by everybody. "The vendor win was an opportunity for the city to acknowledge that this community matters. It means that we're trying to build an economy for L.A. that looks like L.A.," Espinoza said. 

Top Image: Pinata District street vendors | Samanta Helou Hernandez

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