Last night, the LA Food Policy Council, in association with the East LA Community Corporation and the Los Angeles Street Vending Campaign, hosted a town-hall style meeting in the beautiful Casa del Mexicano in Boyle Heights.
The meeting, which was emceed by LA Food Policy Council co-director Clare Fox, featured spirited discussion with civic leaders and testimonials from real street vendors. While it did not address policy in great detail, it ultimately served as a positive first step in creating public awareness for the plight of the illegal street vendor.
Out of the top ten most populous cities in the United States, Los Angeles is the only city in which street vending is disallowed entirely. Los Angeles is also, ironically, the city with the highest number of street vendors, with as many as 50,000 roaming the streets at any given time, by some accounts. According to Rudy Espinoza of the LURN Network (Leadership for Urban Renewal Network), Los Angeles could potentially reap $47 million per year in tax revenue were a framework for legalized vending to be set in place.
We depend on this work
Street vendors Caridad Vasquez and Alfonso Garcia took the stage to tell their own stories of the hardships of street vending. They explained that they live in a constant state of paranoia, due to the nebulous current system in which the City of Los Angeles will arbitrarily decide to crack down on street vendors, but not uniformly. Garcia said, "All we want is to work in peace." Street vendors must live in a continual state of fear, as they have no formal legal protections. "We depend on this work," Vasquez explained. "All of us selling in the street ... we suffer a lot."
Mike Dennis of the East LA Community Corps described the challenges of convincing LA City Council members to support legalization of street vending. He singled out Paul Krekorian of the 2nd district, who is chairman of the Budget & Finance Committee, as a particularly important councilman to win over: "We have to convince him to do the right thing," Dennis explained. "His constituents don't really care about this issue."
Legalizing street vendors can only improve food safety
I learned during the meeting that fear of street vendors, particularly food vendors, tends to fall into a couple of categories: health risks — potentially getting sick from street food — and competitive fears from brick-and-mortar shops. Doug Smith from Public Counsel, the nation's largest pro bono legal firm, believes the concerns are overstated. "Legalizing street vendors can only improve food safety," he explained. He went on to explain that anti-competitive attitudes of brick-and-mortar restaurants are largely unfounded, and may not even be legal.
This makes a certain degree of sense — while restaurants may not like to see a street vendor parked near their place, why bristle at the presence of a street vendor who is, more likely than not, selling snacks or fruit, and not whatever the restaurant is serving? And even if the vendor is selling what a restaurant is selling (e.g. an ambulant ice cream vendor sets up near a brick-and-mortar ice cream shop), so long as the vendor is keeping a respectful distance and not blocking entrances/exits, why should that be illegal? Isn't that just called "competition?" That's essentially what Starbucks has done for years — open coffee shops next to other coffee shops, in order to put them out of business.
Legalization will not be without its share of challenges. Vendors will have to immediately comply with Health Department regulations, meaning they will no longer be able to prepare food within their homes; they will have to find commissaries or obtain access to a commercial kitchen. That will require an expenditure of capital, which not everyone will have. In addition, there will be the problem of graft and corruption, which is run rampant in some cities' street vending permitting processes, in particular New York City. A popular NYC food truck, Cinnamon Snail, recently called it quits in part because of the widespread corruption involved in the obtaining of black market permits.
There will be challenges in implementing a legal framework, especially given the size of the city and sheer number of vendors. Nevertheless, it's time to bring our street vendors out of the dark and allow them to earn a living with dignity and respect. They should be required to comply with the laws of our city and, in return, receive the full protections that come with being a small business owner.