Fearing Trump's Deportations, L.A. Begins to Legalize Street Vendors

L.A.'s colorful gray market
L.A.'s colorful gray market
Nanette Gonzalez/L.A. Weekly

Wary of a new president who has vowed to deport an alleged 3 million undocumented lawbreakers, the L.A. City Council today began the process of legalizing the largely immigrant practice of street vending.

"It's been a long time in the works, but we're one step closer," says Victor Narro, project director of the UCLA Labor Center and an advocate of street-vendor legalization. "We need to stop criminalizing street vendors."

The council voted 11-2 to move forward with a legal street-vending program. The council's proposal asks the City Attorney's Office and other staffers to come up with recommendations for the program, including a system of limited permits, a process for neighborhood groups that want to limit street vendors, and a decision on whether amnesty should be granted to vendors cited in the past for illicit sales.

Mike Dennis of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign says his group will fight aspects of the proposal, including its intent to limit the number of vendors to two per block and its requirement that vendors get permission from local businesses. The campaign is also unhappy with the opt-out option for neighborhood groups and business districts. In the months ahead, the council will have to work out those details.

The city has been weighing decriminalization since at least President Obama's first term — Narro says he has been working on the issue for six years — but rushed into action in November following the election of Donald Trump. The concern is that vendors cited for "criminal misdemeanor penalties" could become ensnared in the president's deportation dragnet. Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Curren Price put the framework for vendor legalization on the fast track.

Past delays were the result of a council that agonized over the objections of powerful business groups. Those groups argue that street vendors — which don't have the same kind of overhead or require the same kind of capital as brick-and-mortar enterprises — present unfair competition.

According to a statement from the Coalition to Save Small Business, which has fought against legalization: "While we appreciate some of the protections for small business and property owners proposed in the sidewalk-vending framework developed by Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Curren Price, we recognize that the success of the program will depend on fully funded and effective administration and enforcement."

Councilman Mitch Englander voted no, alongside Paul Koretz, on the street-vending program. He also voted no on a separate proposal to decriminalize street vendors. "We took action to decriminalize it without coming up with a true plan to say how we'll protect brick-and-mortar businesses and residents," he says.

Englander says the city should have figured out all the details before today's vote instead of taking a "piecemeal approach" that will be worked out in fits and starts. "I didn't see a framework for rules and regulations," he says.

In the meantime, vendors can still be cited, possibly placing them in Trump's crosshairs, at least until the council moves on finally overturning infractions and misdemeanors for street vending. It's possible that could happen next week, says Dennis of the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign.

"The city wants to expedite this," Narro says, "because they're very sensitive about the immigration issue."


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