HAYWARD—A California state law meant to protect sidewalk vendors may be taking a bite out of brick-and-mortar businesses open around them.
Complaints began piling up last year about vendors selling tacos, tamales, fruit and bacon-wrapped hot dogs from pushcarts and make-shift stands, especially along Tennyson Road’s bustling corridor between Interstate 580 and Mission Boulevard.
Now city officials are responding with a series of community meetings intended to craft new restrictions on the times and places that vendors can operate — and to incorporate the input of both vendors and business owners, as well as residents and government officials.
Tensions over the issue were on display at a Hayward City Council meeting in November. Lesly Garcia from Xenias Gelato said it’s not fair that permitted vendors can take daily customers away without having to grapple with the costs of utilities, business licenses and property taxes.
Raul Martinez, owner of Don Gaspacho Paleteria & Snacks, said he used to tell his daughter to buy enough for everyone when he saw people selling fruit on the street. But now, he said the people hanging around outside have hurt his business — sometimes leaving him without enough money to afford his own food or bills.
In the 22 years Taqueria La Placita has been in business, Alfonzo Perez said that sales started declining once the number of vendors increased. He also criticized what he sees as lax attitudes about safety among sidewalk vendors.
“We have health inspectors come every year to our location and make sure everything’s clean and neat, but when it comes to street vendors, there’s nobody who checks them like that,” Perez said Nov. 1. “I don’t think that’s fair that for us.
“But if that’s the case, I’d rather have my business go on the street, sell tacos how we always do and that’s it — not pay bills, not pay rent.”
Jeremy Lochirco, Hayward’s planning manager, said that once pandemic-era regulations started to ease last year, inquiries began coming in from local businesses about regulating existing sidewalk vendors, as well as opening up new permits.
The city currently has no easy way to address these issues, however, unless the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health finds that vendors are failing to display necessary permits, comply with food safety health codes or keep public right-of-ways clear.
Both roaming and stationary vendors were largely decriminalized in 2019, after SB 946 — also known as the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act — was championed by then-Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and signed into law by former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The state law prevented cities from putting tight restrictions on the number of vendors permitted, prohibiting peddlers from operating in certain areas or slapping vendors with criminal charges for any violations, unless there are health, safety or welfare concerns.
“Sidewalk vendors are a fixture in California’s communities and a part of vibrant food cultures, but outdated laws expose these entrepreneurs to harassment, criminal prosecution, and even deportation,” Lara wrote in the bill’s proposal. “Sidewalk vendors are undocumented immigrants, and sidewalk vending offers a way for those immigrants to be self-sufficient and improve their economic situation.”
And by start of 2023, SB 972, authored by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), further modernized state retail food laws in order to make it easier for vendors to obtain permits. The bill, in part, revised requirements for expensive and unnecessary equipment, such as multi-compartment sinks and water tanks, which were geared towards sellers with larger food trucks, rather than small carts.
In recent years, Rudy Espinoza, executive director of LA-based nonprofit Inclusive Action, said he’s seen more situations where legal vendors help create more dynamic commercial corridors — ones that attract different demographics with different options to choose from — rather than hurt nearby businesses.
But in order to craft an economic ecosystem that helps everyone, he said cities must create and implement equitable regulations by centering the experiences of their most marginalized entrepreneurs: the people who are on streets and sidewalks daily.
“I think if cities engage vendors, they’ll find that the vendors are also concerned about competition, trash and crime — a lot of the same things that brick-and-mortar businesses are concerned about; they just simply want to be part of the solution,” Espinoza said. “But if (cities) begin their process from a mentality of, ‘We just don’t want them here, put them over there in that corner,’ I think that’s when a program can be designed in a really harmful way.”
In the coming months, Hayward senior planner Rozalynne Thompson said the key will be striking a balance between prioritizing public safety and traffic flow, without needlessly limiting entrepreneurship and economic opportunities for peddlers.
“Taking a balanced approach and listening to all community members on all sides of the issue is very important,” Thompson said. “It’s vital that we get that input from everyone, so the (final ordinance) is something that’s a product of the city as well as the community.”
No specific details or suggested changes have materialized yet, but Thompson said the upcoming regulations will likely focus on ensuring that food is properly handled, open flames do not pose fire hazards and walkways remain ADA accessible.
Oakland was ahead of the curve on these issues, creating a sidewalk vending program in 2017 that was grandfathered in as part of SB 946, and several cities such as Pleasanton, Santa Cruz and San Jose have already updated their own ordinances in the years after the state law went into effect.
However, it will be several months until the Hayward City Council can vote on a final draft ordinance, after input has been collected from the community and the city’s Economic Development Committee. Any new rules about legal vending operations wouldn’t take effect until late summer, if that timeline holds.
Lochirco said Hayward actually began work on these issues back in 2019, and said city staff are excited to get the project back on track.
“As a local government, we try to develop equitable policies that really that are intended to protect everyone,” Lochirco said. “We want to be able to maintain some sort of parameters so that way (vendors) can operate safely, as well as ensure that all the other members of the public can go about their daily business.”
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