L.A. Now

Unlicensed businesses flourishing in L.A. area

Schmidt reports for Spot.Us, a website affiliated with the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Once a week, Naty Aguilar drives with friends from her East Los Angeles neighborhood to a wholesale warehouse downtown.

Pooling their money, they buy boxes packed with the kinds of things that a general neighborhood store might carry: small toys, towels, soaps, shampoos and electronics.

Then they head home, divide the haul and lay out the wares in their frontyards so that neighbors can shop.

Most operate without the required business licenses and are in violation of county zoning regulations.

In trying economic times, businesses like these flourish, experts say. Across the Los Angeles area, underground entrepreneurs operate a variety of enterprises, including driveway tacquerias, at-home car washes and off-the-books tire stores.

Aguilar says Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies have shut down some of her friends' businesses, and she has received oral warnings from deputies to stop vending. She knows there's a possibility she could get into trouble, but she says it's a risk she has to take. She says she works hard and doesn't think she should be punished.

Aguilar, 27, started selling goods at home after she emigrated from Mexico five years ago. She came to the U.S. to work but found that good jobs were scarce.

She said she makes up to $200 a day selling goods outside the guest house where she lives with her two children. On the two days a week when she is open for business, neighbhors stand outside as the sun comes up to see what she has for sale. Nothing costs more than $5.

"Many people bother us, asking why the yard is like this, or the police tell us we're not supposed to do this," Aguilar said. "But I don't steal, nor do I ask the government for help, nor for welfare. I try to make my own living, and the city doesn't understand that."

To those who follow the city's rules and pay commercial rent, taxes and permits, the front lawn businesses are unfair.

Julia Bursiaga, who owns a hair salon in South Los Angeles, says she used to run a shop directly in front of a woman who cut hair illegally in her home.

"I paid over $10,000 to get my cosmetology license," Bursiaga said. "And here, one has to pay bills, telephone, everything. They don't declare their income and they keep everything."

Officials from both the city and the county say they don't have the resources to properly police all of Los Angeles, so violations are typically cited on a complaint-basis.

Even though Bursiaga's neighbor bothered her, she didn't report the illegal business to the city.

"It made me furious, but even so I didn't tell on her," she said. "Because the sun comes out for everybody. We all have a right to life."

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