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New street vendor law passes in San Diego, some operators worried about future

New rules are coming for street vendors in San Diego. KPBS Speak City Heights reporter Jacob Aere says some street cart operators say they haven’t been able to provide their input on the plan.

A proposed ordinance adding business regulations and restricting where and when sidewalk vendors and pushcarts can operate in an attempt to comply with a state law was approved yesterday by the San Diego City Council.

The proposal was adopted on an 8-1 vote with Councilwoman Vivian Moreno voting no. The street vendor ordinance is tentatively scheduled to go to the City Council for final approval on April 26. After that, the Mayor's Office said Todd Gloria will sign the ordinance and it will go into effect on June 1.

Angela Herrera is a Chinese immigrant and a street vendor who started selling jewelry in Balboa Park six months ago, after her other job was impacted by the pandemic.

“During COVID I lost a lot of my last customers and vending just helped me pick up my life. And here [there’s] a lot of tourists, and when I do my jewlery the people like my artwork,” Herrera said.

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Jacob Aere
Angela Herrera crafts jewelry for sale at her street vending stand in Balboa Park, March 2, 2022.

The proposal will impose restrictions on vendors, including when they can sell wares in "high-traffic" areas like boardwalks, beach-facing sidewalks and parks between Memorial and Labor days.

It also sets up parameters for where vendors can physically set up — for example, 15 feet from another vendor, 50 feet from a "major transit stop" and 100 feet from any sidewalk or street closure.

RELATED: San Diego proposes new street vendor law, immigration advocates concerned

Street vendors like Donald Bengel acknowledge the upcoming changes in San Diego will relieve vendor overcrowding, and help with enforcement of permitting and licensing.

He also said the new rules could create other problems. According to Bengel, losing low-cost food options like his family’s hot dog and agua fresca stand could price out many park visitors while putting stress on his livelihood.

“So I have a full time job, it pays well but it's not enough for this kind of inflation that’s been built up, just to support my family. I got my son in the back [of the food stand] and we can't afford the child care to live a healthy life here in San Diego,” he said.

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Jacob Aere
Donald Bengel cooks meat and vegetables on his grill at his food and drink stand in Balboa Park, March 2, 2022.

The proposed ordinance was developed by Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who represents District 2, which includes the street vendor-heavy neighborhoods of Ocean and Pacific beaches.

"With this, we can balance the needs of vendors, residents and our public spaces," Campbell said.

RELATED: Local entrepreneurs ramp up as San Diego County legalizes home kitchen businesses

The proposed ordinance also sets up a system of enforcement that varies for those with and without permits. For a first violation, a warning, followed by fines and ultimately confiscation of the stall and wares.

While the proposal included the potential for future “entrepreneur zones,” Herrera said there’s a better solution for street vendors at Balboa Park.

“If the park can give us a permanent place, of course we don't mind to pay a little fee,” she said. “If they could put us into a lottery system like the performers, we would love to have this system running. Because for us it would be fair.”

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Jacob Aere
Angela Herrera holds up some of the jewelry she sells at her street vending stand in Balboa Park, March 2, 2022.

The city's previous laws were adopted in 2000 with minor updates since.

Senate Bill 946, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, allows cities and counties to regulate sidewalk vending where the objective is directly related to public health, safety and welfare.

However, "perceived community animus or economic competition does not constitute an objective health, safety, or welfare concern," a city document reads.

The law also allows cities and counties to establish regulations within parks to prevent an "undue concentration of commercial activity which would unreasonably interfere with the scenic and natural characteristics of the park."

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Jacob Aere
Donald Bengel and his wife prepare fruits and vegetables for their hot dog and agua fresca stand, March 2, 2022.

Dozens of callers made their opinions known at Tuesday's meeting, some opposing the regulations on their face, saying they disproportionately target immigrants and people of color.

Multiple business owners said a vendor selling the same wares just feet away from their storefront was unfair. Others worried that beach communities needing to consult the California Coastal Commission before full implementation would lead to a staggered effect of the proposed ordinance.

Still, others said vendors took away from San Diego's natural beauty, with one man using the word "infesting" to describe the businesses. Councilman Raul Campillo took issue with this last group.

"Street vendors are people and we will treat them with the respect they deserve," he said, before admitting some of the vendors were not following existing laws. "The current system incentivizes a race to the bottom."

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Jacob Aere
Two women buy churros and elote from a street vendor in Balboa Park, March 2, 2022.

The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium said the ordinance did not live up to the good intentions of the state law, a pattern the group said is statewide.

"Over the last couple of years, we have seen cities pass various sidewalk vending ordinances that have actually gone against the intent of SB 946 and have made it harder for sidewalk vendors to operate their businesses," a statement from the organization read.

"As currently drafted the sidewalk vending ordinance is restrictive and punitive, further targeting and marginalizing immigrants, low-income community members, and community members of color."

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