By Elizabeth Price Foley
Street vendors are the embodiment of the Land of Opportunity. Whether it is selling newspapers in New York City, hot dogs in Chicago or cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, the image of a hard-working street vendor climbing his way up the economic ladder is familiar to all Americans. Vending provides a perfect way to enter the economic mainstream, especially for the poor and newcomers to our nation; it merely requires hard work and a dream for a better life.
There is no more inspiring example of this than IJ client Silvio Membreno. Fifteen years ago, Silvio came to America from Nicaragua in search of a better life. And he found it: For 15 years, he has been earning an honest and decent living as a flower vendor in and around the city of Hialeah, Fla. Silvio not only supports his own family this way, but also helps employ more than 30 other flower vendors, who sell the beautiful and fragrant flowers Silvio imports from Ecuador.
Unfortunately, as documented in IJ’s Streets of Dreams study, local governments are making it all but impossible for street vendors to earn an honest living. That is what is happening in Hialeah. It is perfectly legal to work as a street vendor in Hialeah, yet the city’s vending law makes it impossible to be an effective street vendor. Designed to protect local brick-and-mortar businesses from competition, the city’s laws do their job all too well, with huge costs to vending entrepreneurs and consumers alike.
The centerpiece of Hialeah’s regulations is a “proximity restriction” that makes it illegal for a vendor to work within 300 feet of any store selling “the same or similar” merchandise. In other words, a vendor must be at least a football field away from any store with which he might compete—not because the city is trying to protect public health or safety, but because it is trying to protect entrenched businesses from healthy competition by vendors.
The law also prohibits vendors from standing still. Unless they are actually in the middle of a transaction, vendors must be in constant motion, even when they are on private property with the owner’s consent. Amazingly, the law seems to assume that people will be safer if street vendors are in constant motion, moving slowly around a parking lot or walking through intersections, instead of vending the way that makes sense: finding a spot where they can stop, sell and be safe.
In addition, the Hialeah law forbids vendors from placing their merchandise, supplies or equipment on the ground—again, even when on private property with the owner’s permission. If vendors cannot display their merchandise or equipment on the ground, they cannot sell and cannot effectively compete. Flower vendors, such as Silvio, cannot even lawfully set a bucket of flowers on the ground near their feet. Yet brick-and-mortar stores are allowed to display flowers and other merchandise on the ground outside their buildings.
Silvio and the Florida Association of Vendors, a nonprofit membership organization comprising many of Hialeah’s street vendors, have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to challenge Hialeah’s restrictive vending laws. In a lawsuit filed in October 2011 in the Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County, Silvio argues that the city of Hialeah has infringed his right to earn an honest living under the Florida Constitution. A win for Silvio means economic freedom not only for Hialeah’s street vendors, but also for entrepreneurs throughout Florida.
This lawsuitmarks an important continuation of IJ’s now 10-year history of litigating for liberty through state chapters. We have every hope and expectation that the IJ Florida Chapter will earn the kinds of victories for constitutional rights that have been trailblazed by our Arizona, Minnesota, Texas and Washington chapters, not to mention earlier IJ litigation advancing our core mission. It is time for Florida to reap the benefits of full-time fighters for freedom in the IJ fashion.
Elizabeth Price Foley is the IJ Florida Chapter executive director.