On the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Soto Street in Boyle Heights, Rosa Obando sets up her cart loaded with ripe avocados, water bottles, and small plastic bags filled with peanuts and dried mango. She makes about $60 a day selling the snacks, Monday through Saturday.
Next to her, Marlene Patricio sells colorful Tupperware containers in green, orange, purple, and yellow. She works flexible hours to be able to take her daughter to school.
About half a mile away at Hollenbeck Park, Jose Mijango, 66, displays plastic cups filled with diced watermelon, cucumber, and pineapple for sale.
They’re the street vendors of Los Angeles who make up an estimated $500 million industry and who, after years of advocacy and debate, will now be able to sell their goods legally in the city.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to legalize street vending and impose regulations on the business.
After the vote, a dedicated group of vendors who ran a tenacious campaign for legalization erupted in cheers. “Si se pudo! Si se pudo!” they chanted.
Out on the sidewalks, vendors like Obando, may not have been aware of the shift, but they certainly welcomed the news. Obando lives with her daughter and recently decided to give street vending a try.
“I’m 84 and I’m still here because I need to,” Obando says. “What good are we if we just cross our arms and live off others?”
“We need to do something to survive,” she says.
Marlene Patricio’s display of Tupperware in Boyle Heights. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)
Street vending is a $504 million industry in Los Angeles, according to a report by Economic Roundtable. Using data from the Bureau of Street Services, the report notes that every year about 50,000 “microbusinesses” set up shop on L.A.’s sidewalks. About three-quarters of them sell merchandise such as clothing and cell phone accessories, while the others sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs, tamales, and ice cream, according to the report.
Council members had proposed ending a street-vending ban five years ago, but disagreed over where vending should be allowed. Under that proposal, vendors would have to sell at a location away from established shops. Brick-and-mortar businesses saw street vendors, who didn’t pay rent, as unfair competition.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, the City Council removed criminal penalties from the city’s law banning street vending to help protect undocumented immigrants vulnerable under the new administration.
City officials earlier this year were already looking into allowing vending in the city when California Gov. Jerry Brown got ahead of them and sped up their process.
The governor in mid-September signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, a law that bans criminal penalties for sidewalk vending and encourages cities to establish permit programs for vendors.
Under the law — which takes effect January — local officials across the state are forbidden from restricting where vendors do business unless it’s for “objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.” Any city regulations will have to be “in accordance with the provisions of the bill.” Vendors can also now petition the court if they were previously convicted under anti-vending laws.
Because California has not had a universal approach to street vending, cities have had their own regulations in place. Public safety issues and complaints from brick-and-mortar establishments have often resulted in anti-vending protocols, advocates say.
Now, under the city’s new rules, vendors will have to operate within a certain distance to school sites and venues like the Greek Theatre. There will also be a two-vendor-per-acre rule in city parks. Vendors will also have to acquire permits and licenses to sell their goods.
Jose Mijango sells fruit cups across Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)
The city is expected to implement its permit system by 2020.
Sidewalk vendors had urged officials to include a permit program in the overall legalization plan. This will allow vendors to reserve specific locations.
“It allows them to have a secured space,” says Isela Gracian, president of the East LA Community Corporation, an advocacy group that has been at the forefront of the sidewalk vending legalization movement.
A review by the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) found that eight of the 30 most populous cities in California, including Los Angeles, did not have a permit system in place. All cities had significant restrictions, the network found. Oakland was the only city that didn’t criminalize violations by street and sidewalk vendors.
Rudy Espinoza, executive director for LURN, says city officials will need to educate the vendor community about the upcoming licensing system and make sure the program is accessible, affordable and fair.
Benjamin Wood, an organizer with the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, agrees.
Wood served has served as an advocate for Marcelina Rios, an undocumented mother who risked deportation after she was arrested for selling corn in Rancho Cucamonga — a city in San Bernardino County that already had a permit system in place.
Rios — who became as a symbol for the movement to decriminalize and legalize sidewalk vending in California — had been arrested for having multiple vending citations that turned into a misdemeanor offense, according to The Press-Enterprise.
Wood says cities should focus on achieving compliance rather than enforcement and should look at solutions that “ensure street vendors get their business licenses.”
In the city of Pomona, as city officials work toward legalize street vending, Wood says community organizers will advocate for street vendors to have a say in the crafting of any business licensing programs.
To Gracian, from the East LA Community Corporation, the new state law will be a shield from bad permit policies.
“Now if cities and jurisdictions and counties don’t do that and they keep citing per the existing laws, then they can get sued by the vendors and it’s likely that the vendors will win,” she says.
For now, Gracian and vendors are relishing in their victory.
“For those vendor leaders who have been part of the campaign from the beginning and hearing some of their colleagues or compañeros be like, ‘It’s never going to happen … [They can now say] Look, here’s our work and if we work together this is what we can achieve,” Gracian says.
Alejandra Molina is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow for 2018-2019. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race, and religion. In her decade-long career, she's reported how gentrification has affected downtown Santa Ana in Orange County, followed up how violent shootings have affected families and neighborhoods, and reported how President Donald Trump has impacted undocumented communities in the Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The Mercury News in San Jose. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of La Verne, where she taught an introductory journalism course as an adjunct professor.