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Specter of Trump adds urgency to push to legalize LA street vendors

On Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park vendors set up shop to sell clothing, technology and more.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC
Vendors selling clothes, electronics and more on Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park.

A Los Angeles City Council committee is set to vote Monday on a measure that would legalize street vendors. The council has been considering the proposal for three years with little to show for its work, but proponents say the election of Donald Trump has given the effort greater urgency.

The council's Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee will consider a plan put forward by councilmen Curren Price and Joe Buscaino. The measure is an attempt to balance the interests of vendors trying to make a living and brick-and-mortar businesses worried about competition and clutter.

The proposal would allow for a maximum of four sidewalk vendors per block, two on each side of the street. Only "small, push cart vendors" would be allowed in residential areas, "provided they stop no more than 5 minutes, and do not deviate from a preapproved route or zone."

A vendor would have to get permission from the adjacent brick-and-mortar business before setting up, and the measure would allow for the creation of "no-vending districts" based on "legitimate public health, safety, and welfare concerns that are unique to specific neighborhoods with special circumstances."

The city has a "moral imperative to decriminalize vending," Price and Buscaino said in a Nov. 22 letter to their colleagues laying out their proposal. They noted that "threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants — starting with those with criminal records — has created significant fear amongst our immigrant communities." Many of L.A.'s thousands of street vendors are in the U.S. illegally.

Los Angeles, which has discussed possible legalization for many years, is the only major city in the U.S. to completely outlaw sidewalk vendors, said the councilmen.

While welcoming action to legalize vendors before Trump takes office, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign says the city should allow for more than four vendors on certain larger streets, and it should not require vendors to get permission from nearby businesses.

The Campaign, a coalition of vendors and more than 60 nonprofits and businesses, argues in its response to the Price-Buscaino proposal that the four-per-block limit is "arbitrary," insisting that "our major boulevards can safely accommodate more than two vendors" on each side of the street per block. 

The vendors' coalition strongly opposes requiring prior approval from an adjacent brick-and-mortar business. It claims such a stipulation would constitute "an improper regulatory restraint on competition ... would be difficult to administer, and would place a disproportionate burden on the vendor-applicant."

Rudy Espinoza, a member of the Campaign's steering committee, said requiring permission from local businesses could leave street vendors vulnerable to exploitation.

"We see today, vendors actually paying rent to use a piece of sidewalk in front of brick-and-mortar businesses," he told KPCC's Airtalk on Monday. "I've spoken to vendors myself who've spent hundreds of dollars to pay rent to a local small business so they can vend there and not have any problems." 

The vendors' group also doesn't like Price and Buscaino's idea of "no-vending districts." While acknowledging the need to create "special vending districts" where the streets "may exhibit unique dynamics that make vending unsafe or unworkable," the Campaign argues that these special districts "should not be a backdoor tool to 'opt-out' of the City’s program."

Business groups have welcomed the proposal, although some have raised concerns about enforcement.

The Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m.