Beloved Community Incubator

D.C.’s Street Vendor Regulations Formalize the Informal

The District’s new street vending regulations allow street vendors to self-govern the sidewalks where they conduct business. Plus, a peek at new developments for street vendors in NYC and California.

Story by Oscar Perry Abello

Published on

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Informality often makes something beautiful. A rapper freestyling. A jazz musician improvising. A drag queen lip-syncing. Their organic, in-the-moment, uncodified nature is a huge reason they captivate and excite.

Street vending is supposed to be the informal version of commerce. In this country, lawmakers and law enforcement have made attempts to codify street vending, and usually it gets pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

Maybe this summer in Washington, D.C. will be the start of something different.

After years of street vendor-led organizing, earlier this year D.C. Council Members unanimously passed legislation overhauling the District’s street vendor regulations. The District’s street vendor licensing and permitting fees are now dramatically lower, as are fines for violations. Criminal background checks are no longer permitted as part of the street vending application process, meaning unpaid parking tickets or previous incarceration are no longer barriers to obtaining D.C. street vendor licenses or permits. Street vending violations are no longer a criminal offense, and no longer enforced by the police department.

And perhaps most interesting of all, the new D.C. street vending regulations provide opportunities for street vendors themselves to self-govern the sidewalks where they conduct business.

For Felix Macaraeg, who since 2018 has been organizing with street vendors in their D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights, the District is just catching up with the rest of the world. Macaraeg helped co-found Vendedores Unidos, which started out as an informal union of street vendors but now aspires to become a city-funded sidewalk vending zone manager under the District’s new street vendor regulations.

“Informal economy work is an accepted piece of what’s understood to be the commons,” says Macaraeg, who works as organizing director at the Beloved Community Incubator. “All over the world, communities see the sidewalks as the commons and have regulatory practices that support street vendors to actually be a vibrant piece of the city. There has to be at least something of a commons, or else all public land is just capitalism, all the sidewalks are just for the purpose of serving these corporations.”

Reforms and roadblocks in NYC and California

Street vending regulations and enforcement continue to be a source of frustration for street vendors across the country, even where vendors have made progress.

After decades of organizing, in 2019 street vendors in New York finally convinced city council to lift the cap on vendor permits, which has been the same 5,100 mobile food vendor permits and 853 general merchandise permits for non-veterans since the 1980s. The arbitrary caps have helped fuel a black market, costing vendors $20,000-$30,000 to rent each permit for a two-year term. Most vendors throughout the city just go without one.

But since 2019, delays at city agencies continue to hold up issuance of new permits. That hasn’t stopped a “vendor boom” from growing across New York.

Before the pandemic, there were at least 20,000 street vendors in New York, according to the Street Vendor Project, a citywide organization of street vendors that pushes for more vendor-friendly regulations. The true number is likely higher now, as many turned to vending as a means of survival during the COVID-19 pandemic, and found they either made better money or could carve out a healthier lifestyle from street vending than they could at low-paying jobs they held before the pandemic.

Places like Corona Plaza in Queens blossomed as street vendor havens, as Next City first reported in 2021, with vendors self-organizing and liaising with city-sanctioned farmers markets to coordinate shared spaces and keep public areas as clean as possible. The New York Times later named Corona Plaza one of the top 100 places to eat in the city in 2023. But in late July, workers from the Department of Sanitation cleared out unpermitted vendors from the plaza. Vendors continue to fight for their rights to return, and hopefully with the permits they already fought for the city to give them.

Meanwhile in California, where Next City reported last year on the decade-long vendor-led campaign to overhaul statewide street vending regulations, local governments remain recalcitrant. Fresno recently instituted new restrictions on street vending after an uptick in street vendors. Vendors in Los Angeles are now fighting a lawsuit against the city for its no-vending zones ordinance passed in 2018, which vendors and their supporters say run contradictory to the statewide reforms passed that same year.

How narrative change drove reform in D.C.

Back in D.C., organizers say this year’s regulatory overhaul started with changing the narrative about street vending from one fueled by a desire to placate corporate or real estate interests and law-and-order voters to one fueled instead by a desire to create more welcoming cities and neighborhoods that provide opportunity and a vibrant street life.

“I feel like a lot of organizing campaigns get it backwards. They launch a public policy fight without doing enough deep outreach, without making sure you can actually win the narrative fight, the broader moral values fight,” says Macaraeg, who has spent the last 25 years organizing workers in different communities across the country. “Narrative change always precedes policy change. You never see policy changes that stick and that stay and that are led by the people without narrative change.”

Community members celebrate the unanimous passage of the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act. (Photo courtesy Beloved Community Incubator)

Working alongside Macaraeg, Beloved Community Incubator’s legal director Geoff Gilbert began looking into the history of DC street vending laws, trying to gain an understanding of the narratives and historical context for the existing regulatory regime. He went all the way back to the 1800s, when two Black women, Alethia Browning Tanner and Sophia Browning Bell, used income from street vending to purchase their own freedom and the freedom of at least 25 enslaved family and friends. By some academic estimates, in the 1980s there were an estimated 10,000 street vendors in D.C., at least 70% of whom were Black. But that’s also when things really started to take a turn for the worse.

According to Gilbert, street vendors became a pawn in local politics as District leaders looked to flex their policy muscles after gaining back home-rule from Congress. Restrictions on where street vendors could locate were already in place and growing since the 1960s, keeping vendors out of areas considered part of the District’s downtown core. In the 1980s, enforcement ramped up and fines for violations increased by 400%-500%. Geographic restrictions expanded in the 1990s. Gilbert came to the conclusion that “the food code is carceral,” which became a common refrain over the past few years in conversations between vendors and local lawmakers.

“Street vendors became a prop to show that leaders were serious about governing, serious about making public spaces fit for business,” Gilbert says. “You really start to see a next wave of that starting to happen in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially as downtown D.C. and especially Chinatown saw a business improvement district starting to form and real estate developers really started to get organized about shifting what downtown looks like and really taking back control of downtown for big real estate.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning after police murdered George Floyd also became rallying points to drive home narrative change about street vendors in D.C.

The District’s police department hadn’t done itself any favors before George Floyd’s death, with incidents of officers violently harassing street vendors, including one involving a Columbia Heights teenager in 2019. The vendors’ refrain about the food code being carceral had never rung truer than in 2020, as the racial uprisings spread around the world.

At the same time, similar to street vendors in other jurisdictions like New York, Vendedores Unidos became one of the leading advocates for local pandemic cash assistance programs to support “excluded workers.” These workers were defined as those who weren’t eligible for other forms of emergency cash assistance during the pandemic because of immigration status or because they work in an all-cash business like street vending, domestic work, sex work, or other under-the-table jobs in restaurants, construction or landscaping.

What’s Working

This Federal Program to Aid Restaurants and Street Vendors Is Working
Read more.

The District government eventually allocated $61 million for an excluded worker fund. Although it’s been a whole other ongoing saga trying to actually distribute those funds, winning that allocation helped drive home the narrative that street vending is a legitimate line of work that is worthy of public investment, not simply the wrath of law enforcement.

It still took more than one attempt to pass legislation overhauling D.C. street vendor regulations. Vendedores Unidos worked with the American University Community and Economic Development Law Clinic and the Office of District Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to author the Street Vending Decriminalization Act of 2021 and the Sidewalk Vending Zones Amendment Act of 2021. They didn’t get a hearing the first time around. It took more rallies, town halls, letters, postcards, emails, tweets and hanging around District offices to plead for council members’ support to finally get a council hearing in November 2022, after which the two bills were combined into one.

The Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act of 2023 dramatically reduces street vendor licensing and permit fees, eliminates criminal background checks from the licensing and permitting process, and decriminalizes street vendor violations (which remain a civil offense). It also eliminates prohibitive regulations on street vendor carts and directs the local health department to create a new set of cart regulations that acknowledges different needs for different types of food. The act also creates a new “microenterprise home kitchen” permit to allow street vendors to use their home kitchens for preparing and cooking food for their businesses.

Vendors governing vendors

The new law also adds a new street vending zone to the existing map, and it’s unlike any other in the District so far. The new Columbia Heights Mount Pleasant Sidewalk Vending Zone will be the first to have a “sidewalk vending zone manager,” designated and funded by the District. Organizations eligible to apply to become a sidewalk vending zone manager include D.C. nonprofits “familiar with the needs of the vendor population they seek to manage” as well as vendor-organized cooperatives — such as Vendedores Unidos.

(Photo courtesy Beloved Community Incubator)

A designated sidewalk vending zone manager must have a District-approved vending site plan that diagrams the locations of vending carts, the owners of those carts and the cart dimensions, and also allows vendors to alternate between locations within the zone.

The manager must also maintain a list of the vendors in the zone, log daily oversight activities, develop dispute resolution procedures, provide technical support and ensure all vendors comply with relevant laws and regulations. The new law also directs the Mayor’s office to create an application process for eligible groups (including street vendor associations) to petition for the creation of additional sidewalk vending zones.

“This law lays the groundwork,” Gilbert says. “It creates a tool that we can use to organize and take back more space to be put in more of a commons-like relationship with street vendors and de-commodify that land.”

As experiences from other jurisdictions have shown, passing more street vendor-friendly regulations is only just a new start. Implementation isn’t guaranteed, particularly when up against big real estate interests, even as street food is taken for granted as one of the best parts of most cities in any other country around the world for pretty much as long as cities have existed.

“Street vending is a society of mutual aid,” Macaraeg says. “People help each other street vend, they would give each other breaks, they help each other get ice to keep the food cold, they make change for each other, they watch each others’ carts. There are children who were literally raised under the vending table. And they’re continuing family traditions that have persisted transnationally and intergenerationally. Their families had been street vendors or participated in farmers markets back in their tiny hometowns. It’s a piece of cultural resistance.”

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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