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Here’s Where LA Currently Stands on Trying to Fully Legalize Street Food Vending

There’s still a lot of confusion one year after state law SB 946 was passed

Salvadoran street market in front of Koreatown’s Two Guys Plaza with stalls and cooked foods.
Salvadoran street market
Bill Esparza
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

It’s been nearly a year since the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance to fully legalize street vending, following a mandate from outgoing Governor Jerry Brown that required all California cities to develop their own regulations. The process has sparked controversy and ignited heated debates, but so far not much has been fully codified across the region. Depending on the Southern California locale, some street vendors experience changing rules, delayed decisions, angry citizens, and increased contact with law enforcement, along with a new set of operating costs.

All cities are prohibited from banning sidewalk vendors because of the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, also known as SB 946, though the structure of how to enforce payment and safe vending practices has been highly publicized and heavily debated. Just last week the LA City Council approved new street vending fees. In 2020, the first six months will cost vendors $291 to sell their food, and $541 after July 1.

Curbed LA reports that LA community organizers previously lobbied to keep permit fees the $50 to $200 range, but to no avail. In some meetings, non-English speaking vendors were not provided translation services, further hindering the ability for some of the most impacted business owners to be able to speak up on the important issue.

LA’s Council must now determine which agency will issue permits and enforce the rules. The council is said to be recommending the hiring of contractors to educate street vendors about the new regulations.

birria tacos truck on plates with camera
Tacos from a taco truck.
Farley Elliott

Glendale’s City Council rushed to approve street vendor rules just before the holidays begin. Glendale’s new ordinance requires street vendors to have a background check, pay an annual $295 permit fee, and display a health permit. According to the Los Angeles Times, vendors are also required to maintain liability insurance. After initially suggesting a $2 million liability policy, Glendale’s Council agreed temporarily to a $200,000 liability amount.

Over in Santa Monica, city officials cemented street vending rules in April with a Comprehensive Sidewalk Vending Program. The emergency ordinance legitimized the city’s countless street vendors, who are officially licensed, and in the case of food, include a rating from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Santa Monica’s government moved quickly to stay ahead of the game, and its local regulations are some of the most amenable to vendors. There is no insurance requirement and license fees are $160. Santa Monica officials also launched a bilingual outreach program to educate those selling food.

Yet these efforts do not protect Santa Monica vendors from increased contact with law enforcement this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. With misdemeanor arrests and fines, the treatment still appears to be the antithesis of what SB 946 was designed for.

There are still tight restrictions surrounding SB 946 within LA County at large. LA vendors are prohibited from operating near many major sports and entertainment venues; only two vendors are allowed at at a time in Los Angeles city parks; and vendors are told generally that they cannot restrict pedestrian access when serving on the sidewalk.

The most outstanding remaining question behind street food legislation is: can it work? Vendors are a crucial and longstanding part of Southern California culture, though they have always operated with very thin profit margins. Can these small businesses afford to operate legally throughout greater Los Angeles — and can Los Angeles as a culture and food town afford to lose them?