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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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Street Legal, but Unfair Competition

Last month, Los Angeles City Council members asked the city’s legal counsel to draft an ordinance allowing for a permit system for street vendors. But officials can’t open the floodgates for competition with the region’s brick-and-mortar business owners – who are already saddled with some of the most burdensome regulations in the country – without creating some rules and regulations for street vendors, too. A green light for street vendors everywhere with no oversight would have a devastating impact on L.A. business owners who already pay into business improvement districts for the apparent benefit of their mobile competition. For example, even if one sets aside the basic concern of fairness in allowing the unchecked growth of street vendors – meaning the operator of a cart that sells baseball caps could set up shop in front of a successful, longtime mom-and-pop sporting goods store and poach customers – there are numerous concerns to be addressed before everyone gets a street vending permit. This is not something that belongs on every corner, as any business owner will note, or anyone who has walked through the streets of Los Angeles can observe. A one-size-fits-all policy just doesn’t make sense, and neighborhoods deserve the right to protect the quality and commerce of their sidewalks. If Council members insist on further undercutting local business owners’ ability to turn a profit by licensing street vendors – the recently rushed-through minimum wage hike will do untold damage – then street vending must be confined to areas where it won’t interfere with traditional storefronts. And, along those same lines, does the city plan to allow the type of blatantly unfair business poaching in the above example, or will it use a model similar to what Portland has, which makes street vendors seek the permission of the business they operate in front of? Another big concern with the plan is there has been no fee structure identified for how the city would pay for the oversight necessary to give any credibility to a permit process. If the City Council is going to legalize street vendors, there’s an inevitable need for regulation. But at what cost and to whom will the bill get sent? It seems unfair by any standard to make the owners of storefronts pay for the cost of regulating their street vendor competition. And if the city is going to sanction the sale of fruit from a cart, there should be some sort of method for inspecting and regulating the merchandise on a level akin to the laws by which a corner grocery store must abide. Lastly, some sort of cap on the number of street-vendor licenses must be implemented in order to prevent our streets from turning into a marketplace from the wild, wild West, where anything goes. A limit seems logical in light of the fact that New York City caps its permits for street vendors at 3,000, and L.A has an estimated 50,000. The Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, which seeks to have food sales legal on Los Angeles sidewalks, is in agreement with the more than 700 businesses in the Coalition to Save Small Business: Rules are needed to ensure a viable and equitable mobile marketplace. It’s just a matter of whether council members will listen to the concerns of the business owners who carry the local economy, and act responsibly. If Los Angeles City Council members want to address business regulation in a responsible way that supports economic growth, a level playing field and a marketplace Angelenos everywhere can be proud of, then so be it. But otherwise, there are many other places where the city can improve the friendliness of its business climate without leaving any more of its mom-and-pop shops on the side of the road. Stuart Waldman is president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a Sherman Oaks-based business advocacy organization that represents L.A. County employers at the local, state and federal levels of government.

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