Los Angeles: Food Truck Utopia Has No Love For Street Vendors

In Los Angeles’s downtown lock-up sit a drug dealer and a gang banger. And between them? A street vendor. Her crime? Selling snacks or merchandise on the sidewalk to passing pedestrians. Street vendors in Los Angeles can be hustled away, fined up to $1,000 for each violation and, in some cases, arrested for simply trying to make an honest living. While street vendors in major cities across the country are fighting against overbearing regulations, vendors in L.A. face a lack of regulatory infrastructure—which in some cases, makes them criminals.

Balbina Sanchez, the mother of a handicapped 25-year-old son whom she supports and cares for, has operated as a street vendor since immigrating to the U.S. In an interview, Ms. Sanchez commented that she “encountered a lot of problems when [she] first began to vend on the street… but now I have a truck so I have permits.” And within that statement lays the oddest aspect of the fight for permitting street vendors. Los Angeles has some of the friendliest laws in the nation for food trucks, but is outright hostile to their more traditional counterparts—vendors that wish to sell from the sidewalk.

As her only means for supporting her family, Balbina worked hard from day one as a street vendor, purchasing a small cart but quickly expanding to a larger cart to match her growing demand. But as her presence grew, so too did her problems with the police, as the constant harassment and fines forced her to purchase a little truck instead. When asked if she was happier running her business from a truck, Ms. Sanchez responded that she made a lot more money as a street vendor, selling her hot dogs and snacks from a cart as opposed to selling from a truck. “[I]f they legalized street vending and said I could go back to selling on the street I would love that!”

But until a law legally allows for street vendors to operate within Los Angeles, Ms. Balbina and thousands of other street vendors will struggle to provide for their families due to nothing but neglect by city hall.

Spearheading the fight for Los Angeles street vendors are Rudy Espinoza and Janet Favela, the founders and leaders of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign. The campaign has submitted a petition to the Los Angeles City Council, urging it to legalize mobile food vending on sidewalks and other public spaces. In an interview with CBS-LA, Ms. Favela explains that “the campaign is really working towards creating a pathway for over 10,000 street vendors in Los Angeles who would like to get permits so that they’re not criminalized on the streets of Los Angeles while they try to work.”

For a city with such friendly food-truck laws that serve as a model for the nation, one has to wonder, why can’t the same principles apply to street vendors? In these trying times, there is no excuse for a city to deprive its residents of opportunities to earn an honest living and provide for their families. But then again, we’re talking about the same city that has had vendors arrested for selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.