LA's Street Vendors Are Legal Now, But Will They Be Able To Afford It?

María Campos came to the US from El Salvador 28 years ago and has been working as a street vendor for the last 18 years. She's photographed on Hollywood Boulevard on April 30, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (James Bernal/LAist)

In the months since the Los Angeles City Council legalized sidewalk vending, officials have been working out their plans for permitting vendors and for enforcement of the new rules. Permits are expected to be made available by next January.

But some street vendors who cheered the council's move back in November are now worrying about whether they'll be able to afford the cost of operating legally. Others are upset about having to leave the no-vending zones the city created, including busy and lucrative Hollywood Boulevard.

L.A.'s street vending law grew out of years of debate and community input, including from brick-and-mortar businesses that opposed legalization. City officials hurried to pass the ordinance ahead of a new state law that kicked in this year, which says cities can't cite street vendors unless they have rules in place for regulating them.

Legalization came with restrictions. Vendors must follow a complex set of rules, such as keeping a certain distance from one another and not blocking a public right-of-way.

There are also several busy zones around the city where street sales are prohibited, such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. On event days, vendors must also stay clear of Staples Center, Dodger Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, and the L.A. Coliseum.

FREE TO SELL ELOTE CON TAKIS

One recent afternoon, on a side street off Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, a small crowd of people lined up to buy elotes (corn on the cob) from the "Memo's Munchies" food cart.

Owner Guillermo Morales took an ear of corn slathered in butter and mayonnaise and rolled it in a large container of crushed-up, spicy Takis snack chips. He handed the resulting fiery-red ear of corn to an eager customer.

"I have the best corn from Boyle Heights, this is the elote con Takis," Morales boasted. "I've got the other one with hot Cheetos, for the homies right here."

Morales said the authorities have generally let him be since the council legalized street vending last fall.

"When the police come by, it's like 'Hi, everything okay?'" he said. "We don't have to run, we don't have to go hide in the alleys."

City officials say for now they're more focused on educating vendors about the new rules than giving them tickets.

Even so, some vendors are anxious about the future.

Street vendor Guillermo Morales hands a customer an elote, Mexican-style corn on the cob, smothered in crushed, spicy Takis snack chips. The Boyle Heights street vendor says the spicy snacks are his specialty. (Photo by Leslie Berenstein Rojas/ LAist)

PERMITS, PERMITS AND MORE PERMITS

Down the street from where Morales sold his bright-red corn, Graciela Quiroz chopped chiles to go with that L.A. street food staple, bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

As she grilled the dogs at her little cart, Quiroz said she recently attended a workshop with city officials, where she learned what she'll need to do to apply for a permit next year.

(James Bernal/LAist)

"We have to take a food preparation class, for example," she said in Spanish.

That's just one prerequisite. To get a city permit, vendors will first need a permit from the state, which may require a security deposit to cover unpaid taxes. The amount of the deposit can vary, according to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.

Officials in L.A. government said they have yet to determine how much the city permits will cost.

Vendors that sell food will also have to pay for the use of a county-approved commissary, where they can prep their food and store their carts. Commissary fees vary depending on the facility, according to the county. One fruit vendor who has a county health permit said she pays $3,000 a year in commissary fees.

Food vendors will also need a county health permit for a mobile food cart, which according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health can range from nearly $400 to more than $700 a year, depending on what kind of food is sold.

The carts will have to pass muster with county health inspectors to make sure they comply with state regulations.

"They've told us that ... there will be a special cart for hot dogs, or for those who sell tacos, or roasted chicken," Quiroz said.

A new cart can cost up to a few thousand dollars, according to vendor advocates.

Quiroz knows her old, banged-up cart won't make the grade. She said she doesn't earn enough to save for a new one, let along all the expenses that will go along with operating legally.

"I personally earn only enough for rent and bills," she said. "There's not enough left over" to buy a new cart.

María Campos with her cart on Hollywood Boulevard. (James Bernal/LAist)

"THIS ISN'T ANYTHING CRAZY"

Vendor advocates are trying to persuade the city and county to provide street sellers with access to small business loans, said Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network.

"This isn't anything crazy," he said. "These people are business owners and they have income, they have expenses, and they sell products. We just have to make sure we treat them as such."

Espinoza's organization has developed a microloan program that so far has loaned money to about 40 vendors in need of start-up capital. The loans have ranged from $1,000 to $35,000, he said.

But there are not nearly enough microloans available for the estimated 50,000 street vendors in the L.A. area, 10,000 of whom sell food.

"That's part of the work of 2019, in bringing partners that have sources for loans," said Isela Gracian, president of the East L.A. Community Corporation, another group that has advocated for street vendors.

Some vendors are reluctant to take out even small loans, because they worry about earning enough to cover monthly payments and interest.

"You can get the credit, but what if there are no sales?" said Merced Sanchez, a street vendor organizer who sells sunglasses, hats and clothing in downtown L.A.

The city ordinance will limit permits to three per individual, but some vendors worry about being squeezed by investors who can afford multiple carts and permit costs.

"Realistically, many people who have money are going to want to get two or three permits and cart and rent them to you," Sanchez said.

(Photo by James Bernal/LAist)

"TOURISTS LOVE TO SEE US THERE"

Vendors are also unhappy that the city has banned them from certain busy areas. Recently no-vending signs have gone up in areas like Staples Center and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where businesses have long complained about vendors on the crowded sidewalks.

But these busy spots can be great for business. Maria Campos has been grilling hot dogs on the Walk of Fame for 18 years. She said hot dogs have put her oldest son through college.

"These are the areas where we can earn some money," said Campos, grilling onions as a street performer with a pet boa constrictor entertained tourists a few feet away. "If they're going to send us to an area where there are no people, what are we going to do?"

The police haven't asked Campos and other vendors on Hollywood Boulevard to leave yet. The Bureau of Street Services, which will take the lead in enforcing the street vending program, says it's staffing up for enforcement, and vendors who are asked to leave and don't comply will eventually be cited.

A sign that recently went up at Hollywood and La Brea. City officials have designated the Hollywood Walk of Fame as one of the city's no-vending zones. (Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas)

Some vendors are proposing a special district for Hollywood Boulevard - one that would allow a small number of them to take turns selling from a limited number of spots. Last week a few vendors met with staff from Councilman Mitch O'Farrell's office in City Hall.

"A lot of tourists love to see us there," said Hollywood hot dog vendor Samaidi Sanchez, Merced Sanchez's daughter. "They should be giving us an opportunity to give a better presentation of [the] street vendors on the Hollywood Walk of Fame."

O'Farrell's staff said he supports working with vendors to come up with rules that guarantee public safety. But there's no guarantee any plan would win over local business owners.

While a number of vendors are anxious about all the new expenses they'll be facing once they have to get permits and other approvals, Guillermo Morales in Boyle Heights is optimistic.

As customers waited for elotes under his cart's two multicolored umbrellas, he said he's not so worried about what it will cost to be a legal street vendor. In fact, Morales sees this year as a good time to save up — including for a new cart.