Street vendors press city to legalize their trade

Street vendor Delfino Flores, who works in Highland Park, prepares a pineapple to sell last year.
Street vendor Delfino Flores, who works in Highland Park, prepares a pineapple to sell last year.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Fruit vendor Mayolo Cruz was hoping that by now, he wouldn’t have to get nervous when police cars cruise along Figueroa Street in Highland Park. But he still does.

He and thousands of other L.A. street vendors are anxiously waiting for the City Council to approve a legalization plan that sets rules for their trade. If passed, it would give street vendors a legal framework, and would mean fewer citations from the LAPD.

“We’re frustrated," said Cruz, in Spanish, who has worked three years as a vendor. "We're always worried that they will take (our carts) away, or that they'll throw out our merchandise."

Street vendors in Los Angeles have long pushed the city to create rules to let them sell their wares legally. In December, the city's Economic Development Committee got close on the most recent proposal, championed by council members Curren Price and Jose Huizar.

But the proposal was sent back to staff for revisions. Some committee members were concerned about how the city would regulate an estimated 50,000-plus vendors, who sell items ranging from food to clothes to tech gadgets.

The proposal will eventually make it back to the committee for a vote before moving on to the City Council. In the meantime, some vendors and their advocates will stage a rally Tuesday in front of LAPD headquarters in downtown, protesting police citations. Next week, city officials will begin hosting a series of meetings to gather community input, including one planned in Boyle Heights. 

“We are really hoping that through these dialogues, all the stakeholders will see how street vendors have long been part of the city of L.A., and how this process will even out the playing field for all entrepreneurs," said Isela Gracian of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, which backs the legalization plan.

Gracian said several other major U.S. cities have legal street vending programs, although many are more limited in scope. Some, for example, only regulate which items can be sold.

The proposal, debated last December, was an ambitious one: It would overturn the existing city ban on street vending and make the practice legal citywide. Vendors would be able to apply for permits, and the fees they pay would go toward enforcement costs.

Past efforts to legalize street vending have fallen short. An effort in the 1990s to create street vending districts in several parts of town had very limited success: In 1999 a small zone was created to allow a small number of permitted vendors in MacArthur Park, but it was short-lived.

Backers, including Huizar, say one thing that's changed is Angelenos' attitudes toward street food, as evidenced by the food truck phenomenon.

"The economy, and how people are buying their products and getting their services, is changing a bit," Huizar told KPCC last year. "And so street food vending fits into the new shared economy.”

But there has also been strong opposition. Downtown brick-and-mortar merchants - and business groups that represent them - have complained that vendors present unfair competition because they don't have the same overheard costs.

Blair Besten of the Historic Core Business Improvement District told KPCC last year, "It's really difficult to tell my business owners that have invested $30,000 to upgrade their hood systems to comply with the fire department, the health department, and building and safety to compete selling the same product that someone is grilling outside."