Ana Maria Gil remembers having her gorditas de nata (a type of bread from Michoacan, Mexico) thrown away, along with the cooking utensils she used to make them.
It was done by health inspectors who came by to check and confiscate materials from street vendors in front of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima where Gil, 54, has been offering her delicacy to church goers for 17 years on Sunday after mass.
There was also the fear Gil had of police coming by and giving her a hefty fine. She said watching out for cops was a constant fear and pressure for street vendors, who struggle to provide for their families.
But change is coming.
On Tuesday, Jan. 31, the Los Angeles City Council voted 11 to 2 to legalize street vending in the second largest city in the country. Movement on a proposal by Councilmembers Curren Price, Joe Buscaino, and José Huizar was a long time in the making, but it received renewed interest and almost emergency status in the wake of President Trump’s executive actions last week against immigrants.
The proposal requests an ordinance to decriminalize street vending while a report is prepared on how to implement said program, and an ordinance is written giving the Board of Public Works the power to issue permits for vendors.
“I’m very happy. We all need to make a living,” said Gil, a single mother with three sons in college.
Claudia (who did not give her last name), a young street vendor selling tamales and champurrado in Pacoima, also said she would be willing to get a permit.
“I would like to continue selling without worrying that the city will show up and throw all our food away,” Claudia said. “I keep everything here clean and also in my kitchen where I cook. I feel bad when the city throws away all the food. They should at least donate it to the homeless. It’s such a waste of food.”
The proposed plan would limit the number of vendors to two per block in commercial industrial areas, requiring permission from adjacent businesses and allow only healthy food sellers to set up shop within 500 feet of schools.
It would also establish a permit process, which is still in the works.
Gil hopes the permits are not too expensive.
“It should be something fair that doesn’t take our profits,” she said, noting that something around $100 a month would be fine with her.
But Tuesday’s action was just the beginning.
“We still have much work to do,” said Carla de Paz, an organizer with the Legalize Street Vending Campaign. “We want to make sure the process that comes out is fair and just and it makes sense because there’s already a lot of regulations and adding extra rules it’s not going to help.”
Most importantly, the measure decriminalizes street vending. Now it will be an administrative ticket rather than something to be arrested for and possibly require a court appearance. That could potentially lead to further troubles for those in the country illegally, which many street vendors are.
“It is appalling that Los Angeles is the only major US city that does not allow sidewalk vending,” Huizar said. “We cannot continue to allow an unregulated system that penalizes hard-working, mostly immigrant, vendors with possible criminal misdemeanor charges, particularly in the current political environment.
“These people are not asking for a handout, they are asking for an opportunity to lift themselves up and provide for their families. I encourage all my colleagues on the City Council to give them the chance they so desperately need and deserve.”
The effort to control street vending dates back to 1974 when the LA Council first approved an ordinance to prohibit street sales, only to have then Mayor Tom Bradley veto the measure.
In January 1994, the Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance was enacted to allow selling in eight pre-designated areas of Los Angeles as a two-year pilot program. When the “sunset clause” was removed after two years, it opened the possibility of creating these districts indefinitely. But that never came to fruition.
Today an estimated 20,000 vendors enrich the city’s streets, selling fresh fruit and merchandise and goods on numerous sidewalks and corners.
But while Los Angeles is a hotbed of street food, it is the only one of the country’s 10 largest cities that completely outlaws sidewalk vending.
In 2015, an organization of street vendors filed suit against the Los Angeles Police Department and a business improvement district for illegally seizing and destroying vendors’ carts, dollies, and other personal belongings.
The suit — filed in federal court by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), and the law firm of Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman — claimed LAPD’s practice was unconstitutional, violated the vendors’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, and also their 14th Amendment right to due process.
“Every day in Los Angeles street vendors have their hard earned property illegally confiscated and destroyed,” said Cynthia Anderson Barker, an NLG attorney at the time. “They are penalized as they struggle to support their families. This lawsuit targets unjust law enforcement practices that push these productive members of our community further into poverty.”
Doug Smith, an attorney with Public Counsel, said that the vendors generate as much as $43-million into the Los Angeles economy, almost all of which is spent locally. It is estimated that each street vendor earns an average of about $10,000 a year.
Clare Fox, director of Policy and Innovation at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, also urged city officials to follow the example of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, all of which have working street vending laws.
Gil said for now she breathes easier, and this coming Sunday will head out to sell much more confidently.
Contrary to the unfair competition businesses claim against street vendors, “it is the customer who ultimately decides” whom who they want to buy from, Gil said.
“We don’t interfere a lot in their sales,” she noted.