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Selling Tacos (And Everything Else) On The Streets Of LA Just Got A Lot Easier

A street vendor carries cotton candy on February 16, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted Wednesday to decriminalize street vending in an effort to reduce chances of illegal immigrants being deported for criminal convictions. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Doing business as a street vendor in Los Angeles can be grueling, infuriating and dangerous -- in large part because of the patchwork of laws and ordinances that regulate the practice. Yesterday, California took a major step to change that when governor Jerry Brown signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (aka SB 946), which essentially ends the criminalization of sidewalk vending. Does that mean more tacos, churros, champurrado and bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the streets of Los Angeles? We hope so.

For the longest time, the state of California hasn't had an overarching approach to street vending. That means cities and municipalities have regulated it themselves. Despite strong public support for street vending, many localities have cracked down on the practice. They often do it under the banner of public safety but at the behest of brick-and-mortar businesses.

That approach has been especially harmful to women, who make up approximately 80% of Los Angeles County's estimated 50,000 street vendors, at least according to street vending advocates. And for undocumented vendors, interactions with law enforcement open them up to the risk of jail and deportation. Even when they aren't locked up, their carts and materials can be confiscated. Getting those back is expensive and until they do, many vendors can't make a living.

A loaded street taco. (Photo by Elina Shatkin/LAist)
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Official efforts to legalize street vending in Los Angeles have been going on for nearly a decade. That effort got a push in 2012, when local vendors began uniting and pressuring local officials to let them sell food on L.A. streets. Many meetings and debates later, SB 946 is the result of those efforts.

Authored by state senator Ricardo Lara, who reps Long Beach and several nearby cities including Bell, Lynwood and Huntington Park, the bill prevents criminal penalties for sidewalk vending. It also helps vendors with pending citations and prior convictions.

"We decriminalized it, created a regulatory framework for cities to still be able to have a say in what kind of vending they want, where they want the vending and also making sure that they had a permitting process so that everybody can follow the regulation of that city," Lara says.

He doesn't think the law puts street vendors at odds with brick-and-mortar retailers.

"There's a really good example by one of my favorite vendors, Tacos Sín Karma, which partnered with local bars in Highland Park to bring up their pop-up vegan tacos," Lara says. "We know that there's been a synergy between the brick-and-mortar stores and the sidewalk vendors and actually helps their business."

A Horizon Zero Dawn machine character takes interest in a street vendor on opening day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

What's so important about SB 946?
It forbids local authorities from regulating sidewalk vendors, "except in accordance with the provisions of the bill."

What exactly are those provisions?
Authorities can't limit where, when or how street vendors can operate -- unless the authorities are doing it for "objective health, safety, or welfare concerns."

Can local authorities still pass laws to limit street vending?
Yes. The wording of the bill leaves plenty of room for interpretation -- and debate -- but local officials should have a much harder time creating rules that limit where and when street vendors can sell their wares.

A hot dog with grilled onions and Cholula hot sauce. (Photo by Elina Shatkin/LAist)
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Can street vendors still be regulated?
Yes, they can set up a permitting system that regulates street vendors and gives the health department oversight. Officials can enact regulations that limit street vending on particularly crowded sidewalks or prohibit vendors from operating in the immediate vicinity of a farmers' market, a swap meet or other temporary event.

Can street vendors still be punished?
Yes, but a violation would result in an administrative fine -- rather than criminal charges -- and even that would be based on an ability to pay.

What about street vendors who have already been punished?
SB 946 offers retroactive relief. It requires officials to drop any sidewalk vending cases they're currently prosecuting based on local ordinances. The bill also lets anyone with prior convictions and/or pending citations petition for dismissal of their sentence, conviction or fine.

Carne asada tacos on the streets of Los Angeles. (Photo by Elina Shatkin/LAist)

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