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L.A. Street Vendors Are Caught Between COVID and the Law

This article was co-produced and co-published with Capital & Main, an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. 

By Janette Villafana and Jack Ross

ay viene la ciudad!” (“Here comes the city!”)   

It’s a warning often heard throughout street vendor communities in Los Angeles, meaning only one thing: time to stop selling, start packing and go. 

Nearly a year after Los Angeles began officially permitting street vendors as part of the Sidewalk and Park Vending Program, a historic project to legalize vending in Los Angeles, vendors are stuck between an expensive, complex permit system and the devastating penalties that come to those without a license. 

Undocumented vendors have been protected from misdemeanor charges since 2019, when Senate Bill 946 went into effect, decriminalizing street vending in California. But this April, L.A. County resumed handing out misdemeanors under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency health order. 

Vendors in Los Angeles are at risk of deportation again. 

The city also resumed ticketing vendors without permits in March, ending a grace period that was supposed to last for months as vendors navigated the licensing process.

Fines start at $250 and rise to $1,000, potentially disastrous fees for entrepreneurs working outside the formal economy in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. 

The enforcement motions also ended a relative golden age for street vending in the city, when vending was decriminalized but no permit programs yet existed — and taco stands sprouted on Los Angeles corners like wildflowers after El Niño.

*   *   *

For 30-year-old Erika Montiel, a crepes vendor in Compton, going longer than a month without selling was not something she could afford when the pandemic arrived. 

“We had to go back to work because our money was already running out. We couldn't complete rent,” Montiel says. “We had no other choice but to go back.”

For the single mother of two, selling her crepes, churro sundaes and funnel cakes is a job in which she takes pride and joy. It’s also her only job and main source of income, so it’s no surprise that like other vendors, she reopened her stand, Sweet Crepes — run by Montiel; her father, Felipe; and sister, Karla — out of necessity. 

Not long after Montiel reopened her stand, other vendors began to take notice and joined her.  

“It was like all the vendors were waiting to see who got out to sell, because the more vendors they saw, the more comfortable everyone became to come back out,” says Montiel’s sister, Karla.

Yes, they feared getting cited, fined or even arrested, but thanks to warnings like “Hay viene la ciudad” echoing down East Compton Boulevard, Montiel and other vendors have been able to avoid such an encounter.   

“That’s why I love this city — because we as vendors and residents of Compton, we have each other’s backs,” says Karla. 

Only seven vendors have actually received misdemeanor citations, an official with the L.A. County Department of Public Health wrote in an email. 

But according to lawyer Doug Smith, who represents vendors with pro bono law firm Public Counsel, a 2017 executive order from the Trump administration means even those not charged or convicted are at risk of deportation.

Under the order, undocumented residents are “prioritize[d] for removal” if they’ve been charged with or convicted of a crime — but also if they committed “acts” that “constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”

Only 90 vendors have both city and county permits, according to a spokesperson from the Bureau of Sanitation. An estimated 10,000 street vendors work in L.A. County.

“The mere possibility of criminal prosecution could lead to deportation,” the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign wrote in a letter to the County Board of Supervisors. “We are aware of several situations involving simple sidewalk vending citations triggering deportation threats.”

Meanwhile, permits are expensive and highly difficult to acquire. 

To sell food legally in Los Angeles, a vendor needs a permit from both the city and the county. To get a city permit, a vendor needs a city Business Tax Registration Certificate and a California State Seller's Permit. 

To get a county permit, a vendor has to pass inspection from the health department, a feat vendors and vendor advocates say is nearly impossible because the health code was written for restaurants, not vendors on the go working with limited financial resources. 

Only 90 vendors have both city and county permits, according to a spokesperson from the Bureau of Sanitation. An estimated 10,000 street vendors work in L.A. County.

Under the current health code, carts conducting “full food preparation” must have hot running water, a liquid waste tank and a three-compartment sink — one compartment for hand-washing and one each for clean and dirty cooking wares. Perishable foods require refrigeration units. Fruteros face particular challenges: No cut fruit can be kept on ice, and fruit can’t even be sliced at a cart without breaking the law.

“The health department has told us they basically believe it’s impossible to retrofit an existing cart into being compliant,” says Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City, a nonprofit supporting vendors in Los Angeles.

Permits from the city are issued by StreetsLA — the city’s Bureau of Street Services, which has added the Sidewalk and Park Vending Program to its pothole and “tree emergency” duties — and cost $291 annually until July 2021, when the price will rise to $541. County health permits cost $772 annually for “high risk” mobile food facilities handling perishable foods and conducting full food preparation, and $393 for “low risk” facilities, which sell prepackaged foods like ice cream, candy or snacks. Vendors also have to pay a one-time fee of $746 to have their cart inspected.

“For vendors who make little more than $10,000 a year, this is an astonishing percentage of their income,” law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp wrote in a letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and Barbara Ferrer, director of the Department of Public Health. “By comparison, yearly California state bar dues for attorneys (a profession with an average annual salary of $168,000) come out to $544—about three-tenths of one percent of average annual income,” they added.

The city has issued 641 citations this year, a spokesperson from the Bureau of Sanitation wrote in an email: 485 to vendors lacking permits and 156 to vendors for COVID-19–related violations, charges resulting from the City Council motion this March.

On Sunday, Oct. 4, Merlin Alvarado, a hot dog street vendor in Hollywood, was having what she described as a normal day at work when, around 2:30 p.m., she noticed a car drive slowly past her stand. As she looked closer, she knew right away that it was StreetsLA, formerly known as the Bureau of Street Services (BSS).

Whenever we find out BSS or the police is coming, we just pack our things and leave to avoid getting the ticket,” says Alvarado. 

This time there was no early warning — the moment she locked eyes with the StreetsLA official, she knew she’d be going home with a ticket. She wasn’t wrong. Three hours passed when, around 5:30 p.m., the official made his way back to Alvarado’s stand and served her a $500 citation.  

“Just with him seeing you, you know you’re going to get a ticket whether you move or not,” Alvarado says. “He already has all your information, so if he doesn’t serve you the ticket right there, you know it’ll be coming in the mail.”

Over the last five years as a street vendor in Hollywood, Alvarado has had similar run-ins more times than she can remember. To her, a $500 ticket isn’t the only thing she worries about when street vending. She says that as vendors, they must also watch out for the Los Angeles Police Department.

“They literally come and intimidate you and scare you into not wanting to come back to the same place...”

Citing previous encounters with law enforcement, she described verbal threats used to get her and other vendors to stop selling. In one case, a police officer threatened to arrest her if he saw her again. She recalls saying to the officer that she was committing no crime by street vending. According to Alvarado, the officer responded, “No, I’m not going to arrest you for being a street vendor — I’m gonna arrest you for disrespecting the law. I have many ways I can arrest you without the need of arresting you for street vending.”

At the time Alvarado was selling in an area that was considered a no-sell zone.

It is improper for LAPD officers to threaten arrest, says lawyer Doug Smith, because the city only gives out tickets. Misdemeanors, issued by sheriff’s deputies on behalf of the county, can result in arrest.

“They literally come and intimidate you and scare you into not wanting to come back to the same place,” says Alvarado.

Street vendor Max Hipolito, who sells tacos, mulitas and quesadillas in East L.A., shares similar stories about run-ins with law enforcement and  StreetsLA. In a recent incident, his food was thrown away.

On Saturday, Sept. 26, Hipolito had just started selling his food when L.A. County Department of Public Health (DPH) officials, along with sheriff’s deputies, surprised him and other vendors. 

Hipolito was told that he was about to be issued a $1,000 fine. 

“At that moment they started to check all our food. We had a lot of food when they showed up because we had just started selling,” he says. “So, since it was a lot, they threw all of it in the trash — the food, the salsas, everything.”

Since the pandemic, he has had two similar encounters. In both cases his food was thrown away. However, this was the first time he experienced DPH officials arriving with sheriff’s deputies. 

“We just felt sad because it costs us a lot of work, time and money to prepare the food, to buy the ingredients — and for it to all end up in the trash,” says Hipolito. 

That day, before officials left, Hipolito says he was given a verbal warning and reminder by the DPH, who told him, ‘‘Next time it won’t be a warning — it’ll be the $1,000 fine.” 

The thought of receiving the hefty fine crosses his mind every time he decides to go out and sell. 

“It’s difficult to get back out after a situation like that because sometimes that means needing to ask for a loan or borrow money,” he says. “It could be as fast as a week or, in some cases, weeks [before selling again], depending on how much you lost.”

Street vendors like Hipolito and Alvarado have noticed a rise in enforcement since the pandemic began. 

The city can visit as often as every day, they say, making the possibility of getting a fine that much higher. Hipolito says that since his last run-in with law enforcement, he recalls the city and sheriff’s department stopping by a few more times — only this time they fined vendors down the street from him. 

And although they understand the city has public health as its main concern and priority, they wonder if Los Angeles will ever truly support street vendors.  

Vending boomed in the 1980s as violence in Central America drove refugees to Los Angeles. Barred from traditional employment by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, immigrants turned to selling street food as a means of survival.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Alvarado. “On one side, street vending is legalized in the city, but on the other side, the process to get the permits is such a hassle.”

*   *   *

Though the pandemic makes serving L.A.’s famous street food more challenging, the struggle to keep Los Angeles delicious is not new. Police and vendors clashed as early as the 19th century when angry officials demanded the removal of “tamale wagons” from city streets.

Vending boomed in the 1980s as violence in Central America drove refugees to Los Angeles. Barred from traditional employment by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, immigrants turned to selling street food as a means of survival.

Then, as now, vendors could be fined up to $1,000 and given a misdemeanor, scholar Fazila Bhimji wrote in a 2010 issue of Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, an academic publication. Those with bad luck served six-month jail sentences.

In 1990, a play starring real vendors portrayed the entrepreneurs as being so mired in rules and regulations that they slowly turned into robots. In 1994, the City Council approved a pilot program to legalize vending in up to eight districts. Vendors and their families packed council meetings and celebrated when the legislation passed, but only in one district — MacArthur Park — was the program ever formalized. Six months after its launch, no permits had been approved, and after two years, legislators let the program expire.

Around 2008, a group of vendors, organizers and nonprofits assembled to carry on the fight, with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council particularly involved. Caridad Vásquez, a Boyle Heights vendor from Colima, Mexico, organized and fought for vending rights before the advocates had any allies in city government. 

“Caridad is the O.G.,” says Inclusive Action for the City’s Rudy Espinoza. “She’s really the godmother of the campaign. She talks about it and she’s like, ‘I was the one who went to ELACC and told them shit was going down right here on Breed Street.’”

“When vendors told her she was crazy, she just kept going,” he adds. 

Vendors were still packing council meetings before the virus, according to Espinoza, outnumbering opposition by 10:1 or 20:1 margins. 

City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who first authored a motion on March 17 calling for a temporary “moratorium” on street vending, says the council acted out of necessity when it resumed enforcement in response to COVID-19.

“Over 200,000 people in this country have died,” she says. “We had the more imminent concern of protecting the public’s health. That was driving the decisions we were making back in March.” 

Councilwoman Rodriguez emphasizes that misdemeanors, and thus deportations, are the county’s responsibility. Indeed, the city only hands out fines. 

“If you want to talk county policy, you have to talk to the county,” she says.

On Sept. 15, the Board of Supervisors approved a new pilot program to develop an affordable cart for vendors that could satisfy the health code. 

Asked if the county will take measures to protect vendors from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or armed law enforcement as part of its pilot program, a spokesperson for Supervisor Hilda Solis, who authored the pilot program motion, referred the question to the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. 

A DCBA spokesperson referred the question to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. 

The DPH declined to comment.

The program marks a rare investment in vendors themselves, however, rather than in enforcement procedures, according to Espinoza. But the program is scheduled to take four to six months to complete, and there’s no guarantee a code-compliant cart can even be developed or mass-produced. 

Richard Gomez, an engineer for food truck manufacturer Vahe Enterprises, has been trying to design a cart that can pass health inspections at his Slauson plant.

Thinking he had a model that was finally “bulletproof,” Gomez sent it off to the Department of Public Health last week. The DPH rejected it, asking for six cubic feet of refrigeration, at least four cubic feet of dry storage and a five-gallon water heater. 

We recently had to move a block down because the owner from the tire shop where we used to sell our crepes would charge us to post our stand on the sidewalk,” Montiel says.

“Can you imagine someone pushing even four and a half feet of cubic refrigeration on top of a pot of tamales, a pot of hot water?” he says.

On September 23, the City Council also approved $6 million in CARES Act funding for “micro-entrepreneurs” to be distributed through the Los Angeles Regional COVID Fund. The money will help street vendors, according to Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who co-wrote the motion with Councilmembers Monica Rodriguez and Curren Price. Vendors can apply for grants of up to $5,000. 

But Espinoza says that money, in large part because it is federal relief, is difficult for vendors to access. Why wasn’t the money allocated into a separate fund for vendors alone?

Espinoza cannot help but be frustrated with city lawmakers.

“Sometimes the way they do these programs, I wonder if they just want us to fail,” he says.

 *   *   *

Unpermitted vendors in Los Angeles are facing different struggles during this pandemic. 

Some are struggling to pay rent; others have noticed a decrease in sales; and some run the risk of being exposed by brick-and-mortar businesses that charge vendors “rent” for selling on the sidewalk — an unpleasant situation that Erika Montiel, owner of Sweet Crepes, has personally experienced during the pandemic.  

We recently had to move a block down because the owner from the tire shop where we used to sell our crepes would charge us to post our stand on the sidewalk,” Montiel says. “He wanted to raise the cost for vending there for three days. We eventually had enough and moved.”   

The practice of brick-and-mortar establishments charging rent to vendors is outlawed by the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, says Doug Smith. Montiel and her family are working toward getting a troca, or food truck, anyway, to avoid having to pay for a few feet of sidewalk. They hope the truck will rid them of having to deal with the city altogether. 

The Montiels heard through word of mouth that a food truck is more likely to have everything the city requires, giving them a real chance at obtaining their permits.

But, of course, everything comes at a cost and is never as simple as presented.

“It’s too expensive,” says Felipe. “We saw it could be up to $90,000 [for a food truck], which is too much for us right now.” 

Assuming the city or law enforcement doesn’t show up and force them to shut down, the family sells three days a week for about four hours each day. Their sweet crepes, churros lokos (sundaes) and funnel cakes range in price, but every item on the menu is below $9. And although their nights tend to be busy, every day is not guaranteed to be a successful sales day. Which is why the Montiel family knows it will take more than a couple of months of sales to be able to upgrade to a food truck.  

“The majority of us live day to day,” Alvarado adds. “People need to know that behind every street vendor there is a family that lives and eats off of that vendor’s business.”

On average, vendors are estimated to make as little as $10,000 per year in sales, and even that amount seems to be decreasing since the pandemic began. Yet, more and more people are driven to street vending after losing their jobs.  

Hugo Zamora from Hugo’s Wood Fired Pizza in Boyle Heights had no idea that his side hustle would quickly become his full-time job. 

I used to work at a restaurant in Beverly Hills which shut down because of COVID, so I had to start something on my own,” says Zamora. 

Wearing gloves and a mask, Zamora throws a piece of dough in the air and says he works upwards of 16 to 18 hours a day street vending. During the day, he sells empanadas in L.A.’s Fashion District, and in the evenings, he sells woo-fired pizza from his yard, ensuring that extra precautions are taken to follow new social distancing rules.

“We take most of our orders over the phone, and the ones that are in person never take long to make, so no one stands outside for more than five minutes,” says Zamora

Back in Hollywood, Merlin Alvarado says she has noticed business going down, which has caused her to fall behind on rent and bills. And business that once was booming with tourists and large crowds walking the streets of Hollywood is now practically gone. 

“I notice my sales have gone down 70%. Before, on a good Saturday, I would make $100 a day, and now I barely make $30 a day,” she says. 

“The majority of us live day to day,” Alvarado adds. “People need to know that behind every street vendor there is a family that lives and eats off of that vendor’s business.”

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