On most city streets in Los Angeles, you’re never too far from the nearest taco cart or fruit stand. Whether it’s a vendor selling you al-pastor tacos or a paletero greeting you with an elote, street vending is as much a part of the city as the sunshine and palm trees. According to city officials, there are an estimated 50,000 vendors in Los Angeles county alone. For years, many of these vendors faced fines, harassment from police and no real way to regulate vending on city streets.
All of that is about change as the city of Los Angeles has started to roll out its Sidewalk and Park Vending program that was unanimously passed last year by the Los Angeles City Council. As of Jan. 2, the city has begun accepting permits for legal street food vending that will require vendors to have proper business licenses, health permits, and a $291 fee to operate that will go up to $541 on July 1. Under these new rules, all L.A. street vendors will be required to buy a permit with the city, or ultimately face fines.
While the new program is being praised, it seems that street vendors are getting the short end of the stick.
One week into the program rollout, many have no clue about the new fees and where to apply for them, let alone afford them.
This ordeal goes back years but street vending took a huge step forward in 2018 when the L.A. City Council approved an ordinance to fully legalize it, following California Gov. Jerry Brown signing bill SB946 to make it easier for sidewalk vendors to operate legally. While the bill was championed at first, what followed was confusion across the state about how to enforce laws when it came to street vendors. Brown left it to California cities to develop their own regulations and rules on how to properly enforce and regulate street vending laws.
The city of L.A. is considered a leader when it comes to street vending regulation so with this month’s new program rollout, other cities across the state are looking at it as an example. But the most obvious roadblock might be educating and informing vendors of their rights and what is needed for them to abide by the law.
Rudy Espinoza, the Executive Director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network and an activist who has worked for years to legalize street vending in Los Angeles, agrees that L.A. street vendors have been left in the dark.
“The big takeaway is that there has been a huge lack of investment in education and that is a big concern of mine,” Espinoza told the Los Angeles Downtown News. “I think a lot of street vendors, many who are in Downtown, don’t know what the rules are and there has to be a serious investment to reach them.”
Community organizers have tried to their best to inform vendors of these changes but many in the city have yet to hear about them nor can many afford these new permits.
One of biggest issues that has arisen in the rollout of the program is simply the cost of permits. According to Curbed LA, street vendors and community organizers made the case to city leaders to lower permit fees “from $50 to $200, depending on a vendor’s age or ability to pay,” but to no luck. There was also the issue of translation for non-English speaking vendors who attended city council meetings focusing on these permits.
“We’d like to hear what the councilmembers are saying at the moment because it’s a decision that will affect our lives,” Mayra Hernandez, a street vendor who attended a meeting back in November, told Curbed LA. “And we don’t know if it’s good or bad because we can’t understand.”
This lack of fluid communication has seemed to follow into the new program rollout as many vendors have questions, mainly if they will be able to afford the $541 permit fee. According to a 2015 report by the Economic Roundtable, Sidewalk Stimulus: Economic and Geographic Impact of Los Angeles Street Vendors, LA street vendors “generate on average $204 a week or $10,098 a year in revenue.” This would essentially mean that vendors would have have to use almost three weeks of work to pay for the pricey $541 fee.
“$541 is a huge part of the rent for people here,” Ramon Lopez, who lives in MacArthur Park, one of the most busiest street vending sections of LA, told the California Globe. “It’s what they make in nearly a month. It buys groceries for a long time.
This leaves a big question mark on the viability of the new street vending program and if the pricey fees will only encourage some vendors to not comply with regulations.
Street vending plays a big role in the economy of L.A. outside of just vendors’ pockets. They help create foot traffic in city streets and other small businesses that creates a ripple economic effect on those local communities.
With these new regulations in place, the question is now if these businesses can afford to operate legally? That is a question on the minds of many community leaders and street vendors that fought for these regulations for years.