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Growing calls to legalize U.S. street vendors post pandemic

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 May 2021 09:00 GMT

A vendor sells fruit on a sidewalk in Washington in April 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

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Vendors and advocates want fewer restrictions and easier permitting as the pandemic pushes people to spend more time outdoors

* Street vending illegal or heavily regulated in many U.S. cities

* Advocates say vendors crucial to post-COVID economic recovery

* Various U.S. cities, states moving to decriminalize vending

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Since losing her job in 2018, Nekia Hattley has been selling vegan desserts at farmers' markets and on the streets of Los Angeles. Today, with COVID-19 pushing people outdoors, she sees a potential new revenue surge – but there's a catch.

Street vendors selling food are subject to stringent policies, including what type of cart they can use and where they can prepare the food, and adhering to them is complicated and expensive, said Hattley.

"People usually start street vending because they're trying to make a means for themselves, starting from ground zero," Hattley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the rules are "impossible - it's crazy."

Some cities are trying to change that, with several key legal advances across the country making it easier and cheaper for street vendors to operate.

But at a time when financial experts suggest small outdoor businesses could play an important role in the country's post-pandemic economic recovery, vendors and charities say the changes are not happening fast enough.

Los Angeles started a new system last year, with about 10% of the city's more than 15,000 street vendors now holding permits, said Paul Gomez, a spokesman with the city's Department of Public Works.

"Sidewalk vending is such an integral part of the City of Los Angeles and we want to ensure it's done safely and legally," he said.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which permits all retail food sales in the county, said vendors' equipment must meet state health and sanitation requirements.

"Some vendors are unable to make that financial investment. Public Health wants to help those who need assistance to come into compliance with state law," said the emailed statement.

Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City, a nonprofit, said many cities are missing the benefits of supporting street vendors.

Sellers tend to source their products locally, use public transit and pay to use commercial kitchens, while they also make public spaces safer and attract new customers to neglected commercial corridors, Espinoza said.

"There's this economy around each vendor that we need to think about - it's not just that one person, but an ecosystem," he said.

Street vending is crucial to a local area's economic health, Espinoza added, and the pandemic has been hugely disruptive to many – but also offers an opportunity.

"Now it's all about open-air, drive-through and pick-up - and who's been doing this the whole time?" he asked.

Yet vendors, advocates and academics say that in many places street vending is being held back by onerous regulation, outdated local governance, and biased and misinformed perceptions.

"There's no respect for street vendors, who are looked at as vagabonds instead of business owners. They're looked at as riffraff," said Hattley.

The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.


Hattley's perception is widely shared in cities across the country, said Catherine Brinkley, who teaches community development at the University of California, Davis.

Selling street food is illegal in many cities, she said, and in places where vending is not banned outright, regulations make it absurdly difficult to make a living selling food in a public space.

"Public health is often the motivating concern, though there's nothing to back that up - except for the tendency to consider low-income people and practices as dirty and in need of being removed," said Brinkley, who has studied the issue.

On the other hand, she added, data highlights the positive effects of street vending, including offering inexpensive food or, in some areas, providing the only source of fresh food.

And while vending does not tend to be lucrative, Brinkley said research shows people often turn to the practice during economic recession and in the wake of job losses in other sectors – such as during the pandemic.

"If cities can wrap their minds around the economic development benefits and public health benefits of street food, I think they have a winning combination for the rest of the pandemic and beyond," Brinkley said.

A customer purchases juice from a vendor in Washington in April 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron


Some policymakers are moving in that direction.

California currently has among the most liberal laws on street vending in the country, having decriminalized the practice throughout the state in 2018.

Cities that chose to continue issuing citations to vendors need to offer them a pathway to gain a permit, said Espinoza at Inclusive Action for the City.

California's legislation has had a galvanizing effect nationally, spurring activists elsewhere to call for decriminalization.

In New York City, street vendor policy had been stuck since the 1980s, when officials capped permits at about 3,000 despite demand from at least 12,000 vendors, said Mohamed Attia, head of the nonprofit Urban Justice Center's Street Vendor Project.

Attia began working as a street vendor shortly after arriving in the United States from Egypt in 2008, first working at a breakfast cart and eventually selling a range of food products.

By that time, the city had stopped keeping a waitlist for permits, a move that prompted a flourishing underground market - Attia said he was renting someone else's permit for $20,000 every two years.

"It was a really crazy situation," he recalled.

Starting in 2014, Attia and other vendors began to push city officials to lift the cap, which happened this year.

Inspired by the California example, they now want to see vending decriminalized throughout New York state.

"The timing is now perfect for lawmakers to look at it because we've seen during the pandemic ... a lot of people coming into vending, people who lost their businesses," Attia said.

"Street vending is that platform where people can survive as they go from one (job) to another. This is one of the easiest businesses to start - if there is a fair system in place."

In Washington, D.C., proposed legal changes would decriminalize unlicensed street vending, ease the permitting process and wipe away past fines to allow vendors a fresh start, said the bills' lead sponsor, Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau.

Vendors are a "very special part of the neighborhoods they service," Nadeau said in an interview.

"And they stepped up during the pandemic," she said, noting that many vendors added masks and hand sanitizer to their wares.

"They're doing all of this because it is their community, and they care about it," Nadeau said.

"It was a really poignant example of folks who are the fabric of our communities and yet still aren't being treated as equal partners with other businesses."

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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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