Jorge Martinez stands in front of his food cart in L.A.'s Piñata District, where he has been street vending for the past 18 years.

By Janette Villafana

Originally published Jul 8, 2021 12:30 PM

Life just got a little better for the street vendors of Los Angeles.

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council passed two crucial motions. One re-established a moratorium on ticketing unpermitted vendors. The other extended the city’s reduced permit fee (from $541 to $291) until 2022.

While these are big wins for street vendors, who didn’t have it easy even before the pandemic, they’re the tip of the iceberg. Vendors are pushing for a host of reforms — affordable permits, realistic cart designs and an end to harsh enforcement — to finally and truly legalize street vending in Los Angeles.

At a press conference on June 22 in front of L.A. City Hall, vendors from various neighborhoods described their struggle to survive, recounting their run-ins with law enforcement and the health department and detailing the complicated process of securing permits.

“We are asking the city, our council members and public health to not invisibilize us and to take us into consideration,” said Julio Monterroso, a vendor from the Guatemalan Market at 6th and Bonnie Brae. “We are humble hardworking people.”

Sergio Jiménez of vendor advocacy organization Community Power Collective, said last week’s City Council decision shows vendors’ voices are starting to be heard.

“We fully embrace the motions that passed because they both go hand in hand with what vendors want. But we also know that we didn’t win a war, we just won a battle,” Jiménez says.

The two motions passed by the city council are temporary fixes.

Plus, the six-month enforcement moratorium only puts a stop to citations from the city’s Bureau of Street Services. Agents from the county’s Department of Public Health can — and still do — cite vendors with fines of up to $1,000.

The health department is known for conducting aggressive sweeps with agents often throwing away vendors’ products if they find them operating without proper permits or equipment. Street vendors end up in debt and, in some cases, out of a job. Is it any wonder so many of them are taking last week’s victories with a grain of salt?

“La lucha sigue” says Lidia Castalán, as she organizes secondhand clothes on a folding table. The fight goes on. “Of course we’re happy. We were heard. But there is still a lot that needs to change.”

Merchandise vendor Lidia Castalán, who is also a community leader in the 46th and Main area of South L.A., says the fight for vendors to sell peacefully is far from over. Photo by Janette Villafana for LAist

The 44-year-old mother of two has been street vending on 46th and Main in South L.A. for the past six years. She says she has seen health department employees target street vendors numerous times. Castalán, who mostly sells used clothes and tools, doesn’t have to jump through as many hoops as food vendors but she sympathizes with their plight.

“We see it happen and it’s sad seeing my compañeros get their food thrown away, as they did to those in Bonnie Brae,” Castalán says, referring to a sweep a couple of weeks ago at the famous Westlake street food hub.

Requirements for food vendors are far more complicated and costly than for vendors who sell other kinds of merchandise. They must go through at least eight different steps in order to sell. One requires them to pay $900 so the health department can approve a blueprint of their cart, according to Jimenez.

For many vendors, the main hurdle is the L.A. County health permit. To obtain one, a vendor must have a code-compliant cart approved by the Department of Public Health. Sound simple? It isn’t.

The county’s health code was written to regulate brick-and-mortar restaurants. For a mobile vendor selling tacos or hot dogs, the rules are outdated and unrealistic. They require a vendor’s cart to have refrigeration, storage space, heating and a three-compartment sink, among other features. All of this paraphernalia would make a cart too large to fit on a sidewalk and too expensive for a vendor to purchase or maintain.

In December 2020, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors hired Inclusive Action, another organization working with street vendors, to oversee a program developing a code-compliant cart. In the meantime, most vendors operate without a permit.

In March 2021, L.A. City Councilmembers Nithya Raman and Curren Price introduced a motion to reestablish the moratorium on enforcement of unpermitted vendors. Raman asserted that less than 1% of L.A. County’s 10,000 street vendors had been able to get a county health permit before the first moratorium on enforcement, which was instituted in 2018, was lifted in March 2021.

“Last year has been detrimental to their business,” says Lyric Kelkar, policy director for Inclusive Action. “This moratorium will help these microentrepreneurs rebuild.”

Celia, a 44-year-old vendor who asked us to use only her first name, has spent a decade selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs in Los Angeles. During this period, she says her cart has been confiscated 15 times. Her first cart, which cost her $1,500, was taken away for good.

“You don’t think I want a permit?” she says in Spanish. “That’s a huge loss for me.”

After her cart, food and supplies were confiscated by the health department in 2015, Celia, who is from Honduras, did what many vendors do. She opted for a cheaper cart, of the kind that typically costs between $500 and $800. For Celia, who makes approximately $100 a day, this is still a hefty sum. Her business plummeted during the pandemic and due to the increased enforcement she has seen this past year, she doesn’t feel safe working more than three days a week.

“They are giving us six months. It seems like a long time but time flies and money doesn’t come in like it used to. They think that we don’t want to get our permits but ask anyone who has tried, it’s not easy,” Celia says.

“Vendors are trying to get the city to understand that there’s a big problem,” Jiménez says. “They are being criminalized and cited with extravagant fees because they don’t have a permit. But the reality is they’ve tried multiple times to get this permit and they are realizing that it’s pretty much unattainable.”

Beyond permits, enforcement sweeps and fines, vendors have to watch out for robberies, random attacks and law enforcement.

In April, elote vendor Jose Luis Millan was shot in Watts by someone posing as a customer. In May, Long Beach police ticketed raspado vendor Eliú Ramírez after he called them because he was being harassed. In June, four women robbed and attacked corn and raspado vendor Marilaura López in Lynwood. This Monday, a fruit vendor in Ontario was killed by a suspected DUI driver. These attacks can put a vendor out of work for weeks or, like Millan, for months.

Longtime ice cream vendor Esteban Garcia helps customers in L.A.’s Pinata District on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Photo by Janette Villafana for LAist.

A lack of access to information and resources presents another obstacle for street vendors, especially older ones.

Esteban García, a 67-year-old street vendor who sells nieves, hadn’t heard a thing about the motions the L.A. City Council passed last week. “No sabia,” he says as he serves a customer a scoop of coconut and walnut sorbet.

He remembers street vendors in downtown L.A.’s piñata district saying permits were going to become available but he has no idea how to go about getting one. García, who has had his cart confiscated multiple times, would love to secure a permit.

“We don’t want our things taken away anymore. We feel like we try so hard to follow the rules. We are out here working in good faith but we still get targeted all the time,” Garcia says.

Learning about the City Council’s recent motions, García says he feels hopeful. Castalán and Celia also see a glimmer of light. They say the city council’s actions show that “la ciudad” is willing to work with them.

“It’s not over,” Celia says. “We have to be loud for officials to hear us. If we were able to do this, imagine what we could do next.”

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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