With COVID-19 still claiming lives and jobs, there are few groups more vulnerable than street vendors. Last November, when 15-year-old unlicensed street vendor, Genesis Lemus, was hurt in a confrontation with police as she sold plantain chips and atole de elote, a sweet corn and milk dish, on a Columbia Heights sidewalk, the incident caught on video, went viral.
Several groups banded together, including Many Languages, One Voice, and Vendadores Unidos, to fight for change and to address the dilemma many vendors face from heavy-handed enforcement of city regulations by police.
In D.C., Council member Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), who represents Columbia Heights, a primarily Black and LatinX community, along with six other council members introduced bill B23-0875 to decriminalize street vending without a license.
“Unlicensed vending is not a public safety issue and our response should not be to send armed police officers to enforce these regulations,” Nadeau said in a press release.
While this new bill will provide some reprieve, that’s only part of a more complex issue. “There are still varying community expectations when it comes to enforcement of street vending. We collaborate with our District government partners including the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to ensure vendors are provided the opportunity to operate with a valid license”, said Alaina Gertz, Public Affairs Specialist, Office of Communication, Metropolitan Police Department.
However, the regulatory process to obtain or maintain a street vending permit can be cumbersome and pricey, with some costs exceeding $1,000.
For vendors like Michael Habteselasse known colloquially as Popcorn Mike, owner of L’efante Inc. to sell food in public places, the pursuit of proper credentials means a trip down a rabbit hole of agencies that include DCRA for licensing; D.C. Health Code for compliance and inspections; and the Department of Transportation (DDOT) for permitting, in which a sidewalk permit cost $1,200 for only two years.
Street vending is a $3.4 billion industry in the U.S., according to IBISworld, a global industry research firm. But that figure doesn’t account for the millions of immigrants, undocumented workers, and others who can’t afford or are too scared to apply for licenses through regulatory agencies.
Street vending for many is the only way to provide for their families in areas that don’t offer other opportunities for advancement. Limitations on education, language and structural poverty restrict some street vendors from getting ahead.
In 2020, the challenges faced by vendors have trimmed their presence throughout the country, according to IBISWorld. The sharp decline is mainly attributed to the global pandemic and the lack of government resources available for street vendors, which included being ineligible to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program loans provided to small businesses earlier in the year.
While society often overlooks the importance of street vendors, D.C. has taken a novel approach by deputizing street vendors as community health ambassadors. Street vendors often work the same blocks to build relationships with their customers and they are one of the most effective modalities to provide communities with the right information.
During the pandemic, using street vendors as community health ambassadors was an effective strategy to get the word out about COVID-19. They speak the language and know the culture of the communities they serve making them trusted sources of reliable information. These clinics trained street vendors to teach their customers and communities about hygiene and methods to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The importance of street vendors in D.C. pushed Council member Brianne Nadeau along with At-Large Council members Elissa Silverman and Robert White to introduce another bill called the Sidewalk Vending Zones Amendment to help street vendors. This new legislation amends the Vending Regulations Act of 2009 to create designated zones where sidewalk vendors can legally operate.
In an effort to minimize interactions with police, this bill also provides amnesty for unpaid civil fines. The fines are retroactive for up to five years as an incentive for vendors to get a license or register with a vending zone manager.
With D.C. on the verge of the inauguration and an expected flood of visitors and protesters, in addition to a daily surge of local customers, to Washington’s streets, the measure, if enacted, is likely to define the dimensions and the role of street vendors in the District.
One thing is certain, street vendors are an integral part of D.C. culture.