LA's Street Vendor Permit Program Is About To Begin. Why One City Councilman Is Already Trying To Tighten 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)

It took community organizers five years to push the city of Los Angeles to create a system that would give street vendors a legal business status. Now, less than a month before the new system is set to start, Councilman John Lee has introduced a resolution that could tighten the rules.

"There are some serious public health and safety concerns I have in mind," Lee said. "And also, you know, the fairness to the brick and mortar restaurants." Lee — a Republican who won his seat in a special election in August — represents part of the San Fernando Valley, where a vocal contingent of local restaurant owners has been lobbying for tighter rules against street food vendors.

Last week, Lee introduced a motion for the city to lobby the California legislature to amend SB 946, the state rule governing L.A.'s pending permitting system, to give city officials more leeway in how they can enforce permits. The motion was seconded by Councilman Paul Krekorian, a Democrat whose district includes parts of the eastern San Fernando Valley.

WHAT THE NEW LAW CALLS FOR

The new rules start Jan. 1 and require street vendors to get city permits or face fines. Food vendors in particular are also required to be up to the county health code or face even more fines.

These fines are the only enforcement allowed under California's street vending law. But Lee said those fines aren't enough to ensure vendors are following the new rules. He said he thinks the city should have more enforcement options, including the ability to punish repeat offenders.

"There are going to be some, for lack of a better term, bad actors out there that take advantage of this system," Lee said. "[Enforcement officials] should be able to close them down."

If a brick-and-mortar restaurant had similar violations, it would face temporary or permanent shutdown, Lee pointed out.

THE PUSHBACK

A street vendor's t-shirt outside L.A. City Hall on Nov. 28, 2018 the day the city council voted on a new law after years of debate. (Leslie Berestein Rojas / LAist)

Isela Gracian is president of the East LA Community Corporation, a grassroots non-profit that lobbies on behalf of street vendors. She said Lee's move "feels really outrageous given they haven't even had an opportunity to see how the program's implemented."

Gracian pointed out that the city hasn't even finished creating the system and already Lee's motion could lead to re-criminalizing street vending, which would defeat the purpose.

"I'm shocked and in disbelief that city council would move to make modifications that could potentially lead to criminalizing some of the most vulnerable micro entrepreneurs in the city without having even an opportunity to really have all the infrastructure setup to implement the program," Gracian said.

But Lee said criminal enforcement is not his hope with this new motion — he just wants to be able to have the discussion beyond the fines and fees.

"Nobody wants to criminalize this," he said. "This is a resolution just asking the state to allow us the ability. Once we have the ability, we can begin to have the discussion in Council about how to make this enforcement work."