City officials throughout Orange County are increasingly cracking down on street vendors – a common occupation for immigrants – who set up stalls on the sidewalk or use push carts through neighborhoods.
It’s considered one of the first rungs on the ladder of the “American Dream” – a more fluid type of food operation known by its use of public space, which can later grow into more established operations like the Anaheim-born fast food chain, Carl’s Jr.
For years this line of work has sat on the fringes of local business communities, despite being a staple in immigrant, working class areas – either regulated to a point where street vending advocates say it’s hard to vend “the right way,” or criminalized by local and state officials.
Local officials have raised concerns that street vendors have unfair advantages over traditional brick and mortar businesses since they don’t have to deal with the stringent permitting process, or have expensive overhead costs like leases.
Yet recently approved state laws have started changing things, aiming to decriminalize street vending altogether – limiting what regulations cities can implement on such operations as well as remove barriers to the permitting process for vendors.
The result is newfound friction between street vendors and city officials in Orange County who now find themselves more limited in the type of countermeasures they can take.
Now an increasing number of city councils in OC are voicing opposition to Sacramento’s attitude shift toward what they in some cases call a negative quality of life issue.
Tonight, Westminster City Council members are expected to consider an ordinance regulating and permitting street vendors in their city at their 6 p.m. meeting, which can be viewed here.
When Orange considered a similar ordinance at the March 28 City Council meeting, Councilmember Kathy Tavoularis said street vending was “another attempt to get into our neighborhoods.”
[Read: More OC City Officials Look to Crack Down on Street Vendors]
The recent sidewalk vending crackdown push has advocates raising concerns over what’s become a regional movement, questioning whether anti-street vending sentiment is really about officials’ quality of life concerns or “unfair competition” with brick-and-mortar stores.
It’s also raising concerns if the crackdowns are driven by racism, with street vending advocates criticizing Tavoularis’ comments.
“It was bigotry. It was xenophobic,” said Edin Alex Enamorado, a street vending advocate who lives in southeastern Los Angeles County, in the City of Cudahy. “It was just sad.”
Requests for comment from Tavoularis went unreturned as of Tuesday night.
Orange City Councilwoman Arianna Barrios said in a phone interview in April that she did not think Tavoularis’ remarks were racist.
She said she believed Tavoularis’ concerns about vendors trying to “get in our neighborhoods” was more of a concern about the commercialization of neighborhoods.
“I do not believe that it was any type of racist comment of a mainly immigrant population of vendors trying to get into neighborhoods. I did not take it that way at all,” Barrios said.
At least one former Anaheim councilman – who at one point pushed for some kind of street vending intervention while in office – is now voicing concern over where the conversation in OC is headed.
“It just feels reactionary, when I hear the language of ‘banning,’” said former Anaheim council member Jose Moreno, who in 2022 raised issues as an elected official about street vendors’ impacts to brick-and mortar businesses.
Ultimately, he never introduced any new regulatory policy while on the dais, saying in a Wednesday phone interview that he “didn’t quite fully wrap my mind around it” but wanted to balance restaurateurs’ concerns in a way that didn’t put street vending in the crosshairs – to “get ahead” of what he called a “cyclical” debate that’s historically “demonized” the occupation.
Though Moreno was part of a unanimous vote in 2022 to approve $375,000 in taxpayer money to hire more code enforcement staff and deploy them in the city’s streets where street vendors operate.
[Read: Is Anaheim Poised to Crack Down on Street Vending?]
Over the following year, the cities of neighboring Santa Ana, Stanton, Orange and most recently Westminster have either called for changes to state decriminalization laws or ways to locally limit street vending activity in their towns to the fullest allowable extent.
Moreno said he sees parallels in some local street vending debates with the punitive rhetoric aimed at homeless people as a public nuisance.
“The public begins to talk about it that way. I’m hearing similar language,” he said. “Because the clientele may look different, somehow that’s a threat.”
Advocates like Rudy Espinosa say there’s one thing top of mind for street vendors:
“To make a living for themselves and their family,” Espinosa said in a phone interview.
Espinosa, the executive director of Inclusive Action for the City, a sidewalk merchant advocacy group, said vendors are not only out to help themselves.
“I believe that they provide a lot of positive benefits to our local economies. And I believe that we have to develop systems that include them,” he said.
Not every elected OC office holder agrees.
At the March 28th meeting, Orange City Council members voted to move forward with the idea of additional, local street vending regulations on top of those laid out in state law.
During the discussion, City Councilwoman Kathy Tavoularis described these street vendors – who are mostly Spanish speaking – as “sideways” and “gang-like.”
“This is not entrepreneurial. This is another attempt to get into our neighborhoods,” Tavoularis said at a council meeting in March when Orange officials introduced an ordinance to regulate and permit local sidewalk vendors.
“Everybody here knows my dad owned restaurants, a lot of Greeks own restaurants. I’m sticking up for the Greeks. These guys can go out and do everything sideways, make more money and cheat these people out of business. That’s not cool,” she said.
Other cities in Orange County like Anaheim and Santa Ana last year upped enforcement efforts on sidewalk merchants and in March Orange City Council Members voted unanimously to an ordinance to regulate and permit vendors.
These crackdowns have been fueled in part by concerns and complaints from brick and mortar shops that say street vendors have an unfair advantage and some officials raising health and public safety concerns.
Recent state laws have been passed aimed at protecting these vendors with state officials and advocates arguing that vending provides entrepreneurship and economic development opportunities to low-income and immigrant communities
Espinoza called Tavoularis’ quotes problematic.
“I’m really concerned, because that’s not what California is about. California is powerful, because we are a diverse state,” Espinosa said. “It’s dangerous to pit communities against each other.”
Espinosa’s Los Angeles-based organization provides low interest loans and business coaching to street vendors and other businesses as well as have advocated for state laws to protect street vendors.
This includes advocacy for Senate Bill 946 aimed at decriminalizing street vending in the state of California and limiting regulations that cities could impose on such operation as well as Senate Bill 972 intended to remove barriers in the permitting process for street vendors.
Barrios also said she believes these vendors are entrepreneurial.
“My mother pushed a flower cart at what was what is now Main Place, and was at the time Town and Country,” Barrios said. “Absolutely, they’re entrepreneurial, they obviously want to make a better life for themselves.
“So many people have family histories that start from a cart and move their way up.”
Still Barrios does have concerns about street vendors.
Like her colleagues in Orange and officials in other cities, one of Barrios’ concerns is about fairness towards brick and mortar business owners – some of whom may have started as vendors.
“We have a really strong community of brick and mortar businesses, large and small. And the small ones in particular, they have to run through a lot of hoops, and licensing and health checks in order to open those small stores,” Barrios said.
Espinoza said street vendors are a different type of business and that it is not the role of government to manage competition between small businesses.
“A brick and mortar business has different capacity and different obligations, compared to a really small fruit cart. They’re different types of businesses, so it makes sense that our regulations are tailored to each one,” he said.
At the same time, Espinoza said vendors want to be part of the system even if it means having to get a permit and abide by new rules.
“The laws that were adopted that the counties are required to implement now are really focused on making sure that they can access these permits,” he added.
Barrios said with the implementation of the new law, there should be education in multiple languages to help people navigate the permit system.
She also said that maybe it should include connecting vendors to free small business development centers that can help guide them to opening up a store.
“There should always be a pathway for people to improve their lives and to take that quintessentially American drive to better yourself,” Barrios said.
“But you can’t make it in such a way that A: puts people at risk or B: is unfair to the people who have already made those first initial leaps and have now have a storefront for the very first time.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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