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Despite the fact that street vendors are practically everywhere in L.A., hawking hot dogs, fresh fruit, toys and even toilet paper to willing buyers, they are illegal under city law. That law is widely ignored by both the vendors and law enforcement — until it's not. Police and city inspectors occasionally crack down, ticketing or arresting people and often confiscating their carts and merchandise. But the street commerce quickly resumes. The lack of consistent enforcement means that vendors can clutter the sidewalk with carts and trash.
City leaders have talked about legalizing and creating a regulatory framework for street vending for at least two decades, and they've been working on the latest proposal for three years. But so far they've failed to adopt practical, workable rules, leaving peddlers to operate in a legal limbo. Street vending is an established part of the city's cultural fabric, and yet its practitioners — many of whom are in the country illegally — can be arrested at any minute on criminal misdemeanor charges.
The threat of criminal charges has always been a concern for immigrants living in the country without authorization, but the concern has turned into outright fear now that President-elect Trump has promised to deport immigrants who are living in the country illegally and who have criminal records. In response, Councilmen Curren Price and Joe Buscaino have revived the council's dormant proposal on peddling and pledged to legalize and decriminalize street vending as soon as possible.
Of course nobody should be deported for simply selling tacos or T-shirts on the sidewalk. Nor should the city criminalize people who are trying to make an honest living or entrepreneurs trying to develop a business. Los Angeles is one of the few big cities in the nation that does not allow some form of sidewalk vending, and it's long past time for the city to develop regulations to legitimize and control this not-very-underground economy.
However, while there finally seems to be general agreement that street vending should be legal, the next big fight will be over where it should be allowed and who gets to make that decision.
The proposal put forth by Price and Buscaino would let permitted vendors set up and sell their wares in commercial and industrial zones, and let sellers with pushcarts travel along designated routes through residential areas as long as they don't stop longer than five minutes — effectively opening up the entire city to vendors.
Allowing street vending citywide has been a big issue for business owners, who have raised legitimate concerns that giving vendors free rein will clutter the sidewalks and create unfair competition for brick-and-mortar shops. They had pushed the city to limit peddlers to neighborhoods that specifically OK'd street vending. As a compromise, the council members proposed limiting peddlers to a maximum of four stationary vendors per block (two on each side of the street), and allowing the creation of no-vending districts where there are safety or "welfare" concerns.
However, the proposal also would require that a vendor get permission from the adjacent business or property owner before setting up shop, essentially giving business owners veto power over what happens on the sidewalk. This is a worrisome and unprecedented way to govern public space. When the city considers applications for special-event permits or conditional-use permits, it doesn't give the adjacent business or property owner veto authority. Requiring a vendor to get permission would, in effect, give one business the right to prevent a new one from opening up, and it would give control over what can happen on public streets to private entities.
The city should try to come up with a less discretionary, more standardized way to prevent conflicts, such as barring vendors from setting up shop in front of a business with which they compete directly — a flower vendor in front of a florist, for example. And businesses should certainly have an easy way to summon the city's help on odors, trash and other vendor-caused nuisances that have an impact on their shops.
The city's role should not be to restrict competition or to protect existing shops, but rather to ensure that vending is conducted in a safe and nuisance-free manner that does not impede traffic. The purpose of the ordinance should be to turn the current uncontrolled street vending into a regulated industry that enhances the vibrancy of the city's public spaces.