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Home / News / Business / UCLA report shows stifling impact of fines, harassment on LA street vendors

UCLA report shows stifling impact of fines, harassment on LA street vendors

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Despite legislation enacted in 2018 in Los Angeles and California to legalize street vending, most vendors face threats of ticketing, harassment and fines each day, according to a report released Wednesday by the UCLA School of Law Community Economic Development Clinic and the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel.

The report “Unfinished Business: How Food Regulations Starve Sidewalk Vendors of Opportunity and What Can Be Done to Finish the Legalization of Street Food” included testimony from sidewalk vendors and claimed that the system punishes vendors, with sheriff’s deputies issuing tickets and confiscating cards, which deprives them of their livelihood.

“The problem stems from a tangled web of state, county, and city laws that deprive sidewalk vendors of access to permits to legally sell food, denying vendor dreams of entrepreneurialism while hurting all Angelenos by undermining the food safety principles the laws claim to protect,” said the report’s co-author Scott Cummings of UCLA’s Community Economic Development Clinic.

“Even as local officials make it easier for brick-and-mortar restaurants to conduct outdoor dining, we see them continue to vigorously enforce a system that operates as a de facto ban on LA’s celebrated street food.”

People applying for food vendor permits from Los Angeles County have to navigate an English-only process involving several offices and multiple prerequisite documents, according to the report, which adds that people aren’t given adequate assistance during the process. Only 165 permits have been issued since the city began issuing permits in 2020. The report estimates about 10,000 eligible vendors operate in the city.

Startup costs for those selling unpackaged food is at least $10,000, plus $5,000 in annual fees, while many workers earn an average of only $15,000 per year, the report stated.

Vendors also have to meet equipment standards that were created to regulate large food trucks and include requirements for integrated multiple-compartment sinks, plumbing, ventilation, refrigeration and high-capacity food storage. Food carts the meet these requirements cost thousands of dollars, are heavy to push and too large for normal sidewalks, according to the report.

The California Retail Food Code effectively bans fruit carts and taco stands by prohibiting slicing fruit, reheating, or hot-holding previously prepared food on an enclosed food cart, the report said.

“California’s sidewalk vendors are hard-working entrepreneurs who have stood up and spoken out against arrests and harassment. But as the title of this new report says, we really do have unfinished business,” Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said. Lara was the author of Senate Bill 946, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, when he was a member of the California State Senate in 2018.

“We haven’t seen enough proactive support for vendors who still face nearly impossible obstacles to get legalized. We need continued reform at the state and local level to make sure that our vendors get the same opportunity at success as other small businesses.”

The report’s co-author Cassidy Bennet notes that officials moved quickly during the pandemic to allow brick-and-mortar businesses to create outdoor dining experiences for customers, but food carts were left behind.

The report recommends that state officials amend the California Retail Food Code to:

  • provide a streamlined process  for inspection and approval of carts;
  • include reasonable standards that enable slicing of fruit and vegetables, safe reheating and hot-holding of common sidewalk vending food items;
  • reduce sink requirements;
  • expand access to safe food preparation; and
  • decriminalize sidewalk food vending.

The report recommends Los Angeles city officials:

  • maintain a moratorium on citations for unpermitted vending until barriers in the permitting system are removed;
  • reorient StreetsLA enforcement practices away from punitive law enforcement and toward business facilitation;
  • replace “no vending zones” with special vending districts; and
  • enhance small business support through training and resources related to banking, building credit and implementing cashless and other alternate payment methods.

“Despite important legislative victories and needed local initiatives in Los Angeles, food vendors face nearly impossible obstacles to obtaining a permit. Now is the time for us to thoughtfully reform the policies that have kept thousands of sidewalk food vendors in the shadows. As our economy recovers from COVID-19, we can’t leave behind this sector of businesses that create jobs, fill gaps, and feed our communities,” said Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City.

The full report is available at www.publiccounsel.org/stories/?id=0336.

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