Street vending in Los Angeles is a legislative no man’s land. City Hall might just end up turning it into the Wild West, though.
The LA City Council has been talking for nearly nine months about legalizing and regulating street vending in LA. The council decriminalized street vending in February to ensure vendors could be fined or face citations but not be given criminal charges for street vending – a move meant to protect undocumented immigrant vendors from deportation. Since then, City Council members have floated a variety of ways to regulate the industry, none of which have been passed.
The most recent idea: allowing property owners to prohibit street vending on sidewalks adjacent to their property.
While well-intentioned, this proposition would leave public spaces next to private property open to the whims of landowners and business people. Property owners don’t control the sidewalks – the city also has power over them. The LA City Council needs to reconsider the idea of allowing property owners and brick-and-mortar stores to dictate what can or can’t happen in front of their property. Instead, that jurisdiction should be left to the city government.
The lack of street vending regulation has had telling impacts on the city. About 50,000 vendors sell food and other goods on sidewalks despite the risk of fines and citations, according to city officials. Some vendors have been paying business owners hundreds of dollars a month to sell in front of their storefront – a deregulated version of a renter’s fee – or wandering about from street to street to sell their products.
These vendors have been targets of discrimination, and some have been shooed away from storefronts at the behest of property owners. In July, for example, there was a high-profile case of a pedestrian telling a food cart owner to get out of his way, only to later flip over the cart after the exchange turned into an altercation.
That isn’t to say business owners have it easy. Unlike brick-and-mortar stores, street vendors don’t have to pay property taxes, can block up sidewalks and leave behind trash, posing not just as competition, but also safety and logistical concerns to businesses. More locally, businesses and neighborhood leaders such as Lisa Chapman, president of the Westwood Neighborhood Council, have pushed back against permitting street vending in the Village on the premise that it would deter customers from entering storefronts.
These are valid concerns, and the city’s delay on passing street vending regulation has contributed to the Wild West-like situation business owners and street vendors face. However, allowing businesses to determine who can do what on the sidewalks in front of their storefronts can leave vendors vulnerable to extortion.
Street vending, if done in a manner compatible with nearby brick-and-mortar stores, has the potential to draw in crowds to storefronts in neighborhoods like Westwood where business isn’t always bustling. There is room for symbiosis between street vendors and property owners, and the City Council should facilitate that interaction through legislative regulation of its own. Passing a one-sided deal that allows business owners to charge arbitrary fees for a decriminalized activity isn’t the way to do that, however.
Doing so would only turn an already deregulated industry into an unregulated nightmare.