Cities can improve day-to-day life by freeing street vendors
By Sal Rodriguez | January 19, 2024
As long as there have been street vendors, city bureaucrats have tried to stop them.
Whether for protectionist reasons protecting brick-and-mortar businesses from competition or in response to exaggerated health concerns, such rules are often arbitrary and designed to limit entrepreneurship.
Richard Little Wright, in his 1927 book “Hawkers and Walkers in Early America,” describes city ordinances cracking down on such vendors in the earliest days of America.
“In New York City, as early as 1691, a city ordinance forbade hucksters selling their wares until the market had been open for two hours,” he wrote. “In 1707 all street hawking was forbidden, on penalty of twenty shillings for each offense, half of which fine went to the informer, and half to the city poor.”
Marblehead, Massachusetts, had similar restrictions barring street vendors from operating so long as established markets were open. “The trade of the established market found unfair competition coming from itinerant hucksters,” notes Wright.
Here on the West Coast, historians have traced City Hall-imposed restrictions and hostilities toward street vendors in Los Angeles to more than a century ago.
Back in the late 1800s, as explained by food writer Farley Elliot in his 2015 book “Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks,” Chinese and Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles trying to earn a living were readily able to find paying customers for the low-cost, tasty meals they were offering but routinely ran into limits imposed by city government.
In the 1890s, Los Angeles city officials first tried limiting where Mexican tamaleros could operate. “By the turn of the century, the city had agreed instead to force tamale cart owners to pay for operating licenses as a way to weed them out, but it only helped to de-stigmatize the market for tamales without slowing it down,” explains Elliot. While the times have certainly changed, the sort of restrictions on street vendors have proved enduring, with cities today still imposing similar restrictions.
Street vending today
Across the street from where I live, most days of the week, there’s a woman from Mexico selling aguas frescas (fruit drinks) and tejuino (a fermented drink). Her set-up isn’t very complicated. She pulls up with a small stand, keeps her beverages in large containers and has simple plastic cups to serve her tasty offerings. She’s there a few hours per day and after selling what she has, she heads home.
Within short drives in any direction, there are many others like her, usually from Mexico or Central America. Salvadorans selling pupusas and other foods from El Salvador, Mexicans selling tacos, tortas, tlayudas. Some sell simple hot dogs or burgers.
It’s simple, it’s cheap and it’s usually pretty good. For the small-scale vendors, street vending gives them a low-cost way to get into business to make a living for themselves. Usually from immigrant backgrounds, they often don’t have the money it takes to open a brick-and-mortar business and maybe never will. For customers, what they offer is an affordable and convenient way of getting something to eat or drink.
And yet, these setups have long been and continue to be the source of legal conflict. One of the reasons I’m able to more readily access the services of street vendors is thanks to a state law decriminalizing them in California in 2018. The law gives cities some latitude to implement regulations, within limits, to protect public health and safety.
How California cities have gone about that has been wide-ranging.
In Los Angeles, it wasn’t until 2020 that the city issued its first permit under the new legal regime. Despite a brief reprieve during the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles’ permits for street vendors are notably pricy, at $541. Coupled with a regulatory system described as a “dizzying process” to comply with, many vendors have chosen to continue doing business in violation of city rules.
The city has also established “no vending zones” for all street vendors in or around popular areas, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Violations are punishable with costly fines.
In the city of Redlands, Calif., vendors are required to obtain a business license and general liability insurance. According to the Redlands Daily Facts, the city’s regulations allow vendors “to operate within 200 feet of farmer’s markets, on business-area sidewalks if they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, allow vendors to sell a minimum of 100 feet from schools and let them use small shade structures.” Violations of the city’s rules are first met with a warning, then escalating fines.
In nearby Fontana, the city is requiring vendors to obtain a business permit, a health permit and abide by rules including restrictions on where street vendors can do business. Fontana has most recently been in the news for its aggressive stance on permitting, with a recently approved ordinance allowing the city to seize the carts used by vendors if they don’t have a license. The city is also committing up to $600,000 in enforcement aimed at rooting out vendors doing business without city approval.
These sorts of policies are commonplace across the country, with some cities going even further.
In Phoenix, street vendors have to get a $150 license from the city, get a background check and get police approval. They are also banned from operating in certain parts of the city, and could face misdemeanor penalties for violations of city rules. People without legal immigration status are barred from vending under the city’s rules.
Salt Lake City outlines multiple steps vendors must take if they want to comply with city rules. Multiple permits must be obtained, along with site plans and detailed cart dimensions. The process could take months. While the city notes it’s legal to engage in street vending from 6 am through midnight, the city also imposes arbitrary restrictions on where vendors can operate. They are banned, for example, from operating within 100 feet of businesses selling similar things.
What should be done?
To the extent that City Hall is going to regulate street vending, such rules should be limited in their aims and directed at mitigating actual harms to public safety. Rules should be crafted in such a way to encourage, not discourage, compliance.
Sweeping bans like those in Los Angeles outright banning vendors from operating in commercial and tourist zones or even just within x-hundred feet of other businesses are often designed to protect brick-and-mortar businesses in the area rather than addressing actual harms or risks.
Excessive regulations like criminal background checks should likewise be eliminated, as should excessive punishments. Rather than prioritizing the punishing of unlicensed vendors, finite public resources are better devoted toward education and encouraging compliance with city rules.
And finally, city permitting processes should be simplified as much as possible. Throwing up too many hurdles, from superfluous requirements to costly paperwork, will only result in many vendors choosing not to comply.
Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.