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Lose a 'Criminal' and Gain a Taxpayer : Street vending: Legalize and regulate it; stop wasting police time arresting mango sellers.

December 29, 1991|MADELINE JANIS and CLARE WEBER | Madeline Janis is executive director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) and co-author of the report of the Los Angeles Street Vending Task Force; Clare Weber, outreach coordinator for CARECEN, is coordinator of the street vending legalization campaign for CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles

The visible increase in street vending in Los Angeles during the last five years has its roots in the increased stream of immigrants and refugees who bring with them a tradition of vending from their mother countries.

The increase in vendors is also due in part to the recession and to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which makes an employer liable for hiring an undocumented worker. The majority of the estimated 3,000 vendors in the city are Latino; some are African-American and Asian. Unable to find work in the formal sector of the economy, many turn to street vending as their last honorable means of survival.

Yet Los Angeles is one of the last major cities in the country without a program of legalized and regulated street vending. It remains a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail. The archaic and ineffective law uses scarce police resources to harass, ticket, arrest and sometimes imprison mothers from El Salvador who earn, on a good day, $20 selling mangos.

Many of the European immigrants who flowed through Ellis Island in the early part of this century pulled themselves up by selling on the streets of New York. The street vendors of today are merely carrying on this tradition of economic self-sufficiency. The other options at that level are drug dealing, prostitution or economic dependency.

It is time that Los Angeles adopt a program that embraces and celebrates vending as part of its diversity. The city is considering an ordinance to legalize and regulate vending, based on the report of a task force formed by council member Michael Woo; its members included merchants, community advocates, planners and members of the three-year-old Street Vendors Assn.

Rather than having hundreds of police officers spend their valuable time ticketing and arresting street vendors, sidewalk sales would be monitored by the Department of Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the sidewalks and thoroughfares. Unauthorized vending, including vending without the proper health department, city or state permits, would be punishable by graduated fines, based on the number of infractions.

To obtain a permit, vendors would have to comply with all applicable city, county and state laws, including laws regulating the sales of food products and the payment of taxes. No work permit is needed to start even the smallest of businesses, so undocumented workers could feel safe in applying for a vending license. And the public could feel safe abut buying sidewalk food, with the assurance that it is regulated and monitored.

Citywide vending would generally be limited to a maximum of two vendors per commercial block. No vending at all would be allowed in residential neighborhoods. In a few limited districts where vending could be more dense, there would be on-site management as well as a community voice about the nature of vending in the district. Any commercial area covered by the ordinance could opt out, requesting removal from even the low-density street vending program through a relatively simple petition process.

The proposal addresses the diversity and cultural differences of the many communities of Los Angeles. And the decriminalization of street vending would be more than humane: It would free police to deal with more serious matters.

Los Angeles needs to grasp the reality of its international nature and support people who work honestly and hard, contributing to community life and the economy of our city.

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