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For L.A. Street Vendors, a Step Toward Legality

Decriminalization gives vendors a measure of safety from a potential crackdown on immigrants. But advocates say there’s still work to be done.

Teo Gonzales, 35, works as a street vendor in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in June 2015. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

After literal decades of fruitless back-and-forth in City Hall, Los Angeles City Council appears to have finally taken measurable action on the issue of sidewalk vending. Compelled by President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the council moved Tuesday to decriminalize street vending. L.A. was the last of the nation’s 10 largest metros where the practice remained completely illegal.

This is an unarguably positive step for the up to 50,000 sidewalk vendors hawking their wares in the city, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. Police enforcement of sidewalk vending laws has been inconsistent and scattered, but vendors still regularly get cited or get their merchandise confiscated by police. The Los Angeles Times reports that more than two dozen vendors were charged with misdemeanor crimes for selling their goods between October 2015 and October 2016.

Under the Obama administration, immigration enforcement focused on recent arrivals and immigrants with serious criminal convictions. Street-vending charges on an otherwise clean record likely would not have raised flags for deportation. But Trump’s stated priorities are a different story: Last week, he signed an order that targeted for deportation not only convicted criminals, but anyone charged with a crime and those believed to have committed “acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” Selling hot dogs in the street could qualify a person for deportation under the order, whether the person had been arrested for it or not.

Taking street vending off the list of criminal offenses offers some protection to immigrants in L.A. But there are snags in the particulars, and advocates remain wary of the eventual policies that could come out of Tuesday’s vote. First, there’s the issue of time: The vote was a go-ahead for city attorneys to draft laws that decriminalize street vending and set up a permitting system that eventually makes it fully legal. Those laws still haven’t been written, and while they remain off the books, sidewalk vendors are still technically breaking the law and vulnerable to the enforcement decisions of individual police officers.

Teresa De Leon, 54, works as a street vendor in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in June 2015. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The ordinance on decriminalization, as a mainly administrative matter, should be ready in a matter of weeks or even sooner, according to Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, a community development group, and a leader of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, a coalition that lobbied for legalization. Once the ordinance becomes law, no one will be getting arrested or charged with a crime for selling on the sidewalk, though they can still be cited and rack up fines for breaking municipal codes.

The more complicated part of the measure is setting up a permitting system and fully legalizing the practice throughout the city, and that could take many months. What’s more, there are several parts of the permitting framework advanced by the city council on Tuesday that advocates say aren’t workable and continue to leave vendors vulnerable, even if the practice is technically decriminalized.

“Section 42 of the municipal code [the part outlawing sidewalk vending] isn’t always used by individual officers when they bust a vendor,” says Espinoza. “Sometimes they’re busted for a variety of other things, and it’s really up to the discretion of the police officer.”

That latitude makes a permitting system—which strictly outlines where vendors are allowed to be, when they’re allowed to be there, and what goods they’re allowed to sell—crucial for vendors’ protection, Espinoza says. But the system can’t be too restrictive, or vendors will continue selling outside the rules and risk citations or possibly even being charged with other crimes, like loitering.

One concern with the city’s proposed policy framework is the suggested limit of two vendors per block. Consider the nature of street vending in L.A. (and most anywhere else): In some neighborhoods, there are no vendors whatsoever, either because people don’t buy from them or because the built environment doesn’t allow it; in others, particularly in more walkable districts near downtown, there are dozens.

Vendors say the two-per-block limit wouldn’t yield enough permits to cover all the vendors currently selling in the city. According to the L.A. Times, a vendor who works in the Piñata District downtown implored the council on Tuesday to add a provision for more permits. If there are only two allowed per block, he told them in Spanish, most vendors will be out of work. (Setting permit caps too low has been shown to cause problems in other cities, such as New York, where a black market for permits flourishes and goods are regularly sold illegally under the permit of another seller).

There are a few other potential hurdles for vendors. One provision would require them to seek permission from neighboring brick-and-mortar businesses before they can sell outside, which Espinoza feels would give those businesses too much control over how sidewalk vendors can make a living. Another would allow for neighborhoods to impose restrictions on street vending, potentially eliminating it altogether, although the details of that provision would need to be spelled out in the ordinance.

Altogether, these conditions could end up making the permits difficult to get, and when financially pressed, vendors will sell their goods whether they’re permitted to or not.

It’s true that decriminalization of the practice means vendors will face fewer risks than they used to. But the continued threat of fines or confiscation of goods, and even the possibility of interacting with police officers at all, could keep undocumented vendors fearful. That’s something Espinoza and the rest of the Street Vendor Campaign are hoping to avoid, and they plan to continue advocating for better provisions over the next few months as the ordinance is hammered out.  

“I want to provide some clarity on this. This was a huge move [on Tuesday], but we’re not done,” Espinoza says. “We need to continue to show up.”

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