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Bill Legalizing Sidewalk Vending Statewide Moves Through Legislature, Awaits Governor’s Signature

A sidewalk vendor feeds cyclists on Olympic Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Using the hashtag "EloteJustice" and some maize emojis, Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) announced on twitter Monday that S.B. 946 - the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act aimed at legalizing street vending statewide and allowing cities to establish permit programs governing the practice - had passed through the Assembly with bipartisan support. Tuesday night, he sent another tweet calling for a celebratory "elote with a side of justice" because the bill had skated through the Senate by a vote of 24 to 12. It was finally on its way to the governor's desk.

As with L.A.'s own effort to finally cobble together a sidewalk vending ordinance in earnest, the concern that simply participating in vending (a criminal act where it is not legalized) under the Trump administration could lead to detention and/or deportation made decriminalization of the practice all the more urgent.

When Lara came to L.A. in early February of this year to announce his introduction of the bill on the steps of City Hall, he put the stories of immigrant vendors front and center as a way to highlight the fear and insecurity they face on the daily. [See video of that press conference here.]

The situation of vendors in L.A. is not unique.

Eight of thirty major cities in California still do not have street vending ordinances, according to LURN, one of the more visible organizations leading the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign. And of those thirty, only Oakland levels administrative, rather than criminal, penalties for vending. It's a status quo that leaves vendors across the state - most of whom have taken up vending because they were shut out of the formal economy and many of whom are undocumented - vulnerable to losing everything. [Local authorities that already have vendor ordinances in place won't need to adjust them, as long as they are in adherence to the basic tenets of the bill.]

L.A. had moved to decriminalize street vending in February of 2017 by "stripp[ing] out criminal penalties for violating a key section of the Municipal Code," as Emily Alpert Reyes of the L.A. Times reported. But the move had not touched "other code sections that target[ed] vending in parks and peddling food from a pushcart." Repeated violations of the latter two codes could still have resulted in a vendor being charged with a misdemeanor. Adjustments would later be made to decriminalize pushcart "peddling," but the issue of vending in parks remains unresolved.

And while criminal citations dropped with that initial stab at decriminalization, vendors in areas like MacArthur Park (where a special pilot vending district had been established at the Metro station) reported an increase in harassment by law enforcement as 2017 came to a close.

Being regularly chased out of some of the area's choicest real estate for vending left a number of them reeling from the disruption to their livelihoods and unsettled many in the wider vending community there. So much so that the displaced vendors rallied with organizers from the Street Vendor Campaign outside the LAPD’s Rampart Station last November to denounce ongoing harassment around the plaza.

Finally, this past April, L.A. moved to fully legalize sidewalk vending, and directed the City Attorney's office to complete the draft of an ordinance governing the practice.

That draft, however, as discussed here, still struggles to see vendors as something more than an amenity or a set of interchangeable units. It still limits how many vendors can set up per block, restricts how close vendors can get to events, and prohibits stationary vending carts in residential areas. And while the "business veto" - a provision that would have granted brick-and-mortar businesses power over who could or could not vend near their establishments - was scrapped, the draft ordinance now transfers some of that power to communities. Vendors can be shoehorned into designated vending districts or banned from those spaces outright, something it appears Hollywood is currently trying to get a jump on doing by lumping vendors' wares in with the "bulky items" they reserve the right to clear from their streets.

The fact that the draft ordinance has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in either of the two committees it must pass through before going to the full council for approval may work out in vendors' favor. Or at least give them some ammunition with which to push back against the overbearing restrictions some communities would like to have the right to impose. Something the city council appears to have anticipated, given councilmember Curren Price’s August 1 motion to study the extent to which the bill will impact the draft ordinance.

Lara's bill unfortunately upholds the right of residential areas to restrict stationary vendors from setting up there - something that will undoubtedly impact lower-income communities of color, where corner fruit vendors help close health gaps larger retailers have long refused to. And it won't necessarily aid in softening the somewhat draconian restrictions L.A. seeks to impose on vendors' access to events [though it does provide for them to receive compensation for business interruption, should they be temporarily displaced by an event].

But to a degree, the bill overrides the capacity of communities to exert excessive local control over the streets and public spaces vendors can access. It prohibits caps on the number of vendors within a city, prohibits the limiting of vendors to designated areas within communities, prohibits requirements that vendors first obtain permission from nongovernmental entities or individuals to access a site, and requires that any restrictions placed upon vendors be explicitly tied to "objective health, safety, or welfare concerns."

Whether these guidelines will give vendors some leverage to challenge the two-vendor-per-block rule L.A. seeks to enact remains unclear.

Vendors often prefer to congregate in greater numbers for safety and community, and also because it helps creates a more vibrant, active, and profitable street environment for all. Recent attacks against vendors - including Pedro Reyes, who was badly beaten and robbed and elotero Benjamín Ramírez, who was assaulted for the second time within a year - have underscored just how vulnerable they can be when isolated.

Communities have often cited sanitation, safety, sidewalk access, neighborhood character, and competition with brick-and-mortar businesses as reasons to limit vendor presence. More often than not, however, these concerns are coded - aimed at limiting the presence of the groups who participate in vending or in upholding a particular privileged vision of what an active and healthy street looks like.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, for example, after describing the horror of people eating food on the sidewalk in its letter to the City Council, complained that "the street, especially at night, is being compared to a third world bazaar." Members of the Empowerment Congress Southwest described vendors as an eyesore that contributed to blight. The Studio City neighborhood council accused vendors of creating safety hazards by enticing children to run across the street to them, creating traffic hazards, and... generating animal excrement.

Lara's bill explicitly guards against those that would seek to couch "perceived community animus or economic competition" as a health, safety, or welfare concern that could be used to restrict vending. But efforts like Hollywood's "Special Enforcement Zone," which allows for vendors set up along the street to be categorized in a such a way as to facilitate their removal in the name of health and safety, will surely test those provisions. [See images of that enforcement here.]

The bill also supports vendor access to parks - a hot-button issue in many communities. Local authorities will be able to restrict vending there, but only when the presence of vendors demonstrably interferes with the ability of park users to access and enjoy the nature, character, and full set of recreational opportunities the park offers.

One of the more notable things the bill does is retroactively apply the decriminalization of vending to pending criminal prosecutions under existing local anti-vending ordinances or resolutions. It also dismisses any criminal prosecutions that have not yet reached final judgment. The bill even allows for someone convicted of a misdemeanor or infraction to petition for the dismissal of the sentence, fine, or conviction already handed down.

In that regard, says Doug Smith, an attorney with Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that has provided legal and policy support to the organizers and vendors leading the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign, “S.B. 946 would help bring justice to vendors and their families who have endured the unfair and disproportionate impacts of criminalization by providing much-needed retroactive relief."

It’s not a free pass. Going forward, when cited for noncompliance, vendors will have to pay administrative fines that increase with successive violations and culminate with the threat of a rescinded permit. But it’s a much more humane way to exact compliance.

"One of the things we learned in working closely with vendors in L.A.,” Smith says, “is the extent to which unfair criminalization in the past continues to affect the lives of vendors trying to eke out a living and build their business.”

Fear, confusion, inadequate information or language access, the number of times a vendor is required to appear in court to contest a charge, and the high costs of compliance - an infraction with a base fine of just $80 may cost a vendor $500 after additional fees and penalty assessments are applied, says Smith - can constitute major barriers to the resolution of citations. Unresolved citations can result in a bench warrant, additional fine, or misdemeanor prosecution for failure to appear, putting the vendor in further jeopardy. While a history of criminal charges and convictions for vending, Smith says, can in turn constitute barriers to access to housing, employment, or other key resources. Either outcome can drive a vulnerable population further into poverty.

Street vendors in MacArthur Park discuss alternative configurations for the pilot vending district at the Metro station there. Photo: Monique López
Street vendors in MacArthur Park discuss alternative configurations for the pilot vending district at the Metro station there. Photo: Monique López
Street vendors in MacArthur Park discuss alternative configurations for the pilot vending district at the Metro station there. Photo: Monique López

Here in Los Angeles, the work of the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign has been key to bringing these issues to light and helping give vendors the confidence to come out of the shadows.

While many of their core members - especially the vendors themselves - have been involved in the fight for access to the formal economy for over a decade, they have become a true force to be reckoned with in the last few years. They have seized every possible opportunity to build power, including networking behind the scenes, actively supporting others' campaigns for visibility and justice, meeting with city officials to shape local ordinances, speaking up at official forums, working with Lara on S.B. 946, traveling to Sacramento to be heard in the legislature, and even risking arrest to keep their struggle alive in the public eye.

While that has not guaranteed the vendors safety, it has made their plight a very visible one and earned them substantial public support here. Elsewhere across the state - particularly in those communities that reject the very notion of a “sanctuary city” - they are less safe and in even greater need of protection.

“S.B. 946 will address these challenges directly and send a tremendous message to affirm California’s commitment to protect and support immigrant communities," says Smith. And in doing so, the state "could set a new standard for economic opportunity and inclusion at a time when it is needed most.”

 * * *

Find the full text of the bill here. Find L.A.’s draft ordinance and all other relevant city council documents dating back to 2013, here. See some of our previous coverage of the street vending here, here, here, here, and here. Listen to an interview with Pueblo consultant Monique López, who conducted several workshops with vendors impacted by the Metro pilot district program in MacArthur Park, here.

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