Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Street vendors are calling on the Council for help, as they say they are being criminalized for trying to earn a living. To put an end to conflicts with police, they and their advocates ask that lawmakers make it easier for vendors to sell food in public spaces. 

At a public forum in Northwest D.C. on Monday evening, over a dozen street vendors—all but one of whom were Latinx and primarily Spanish-speaking—attested to police harassment. One such incident on Nov. 19 was actually captured on cellphone video that went later went viral: 15-year-old Genesis Lemus was selling plantain chips and atol de elote from her family’s street cart when she was stopped by police because she’s a minor and did not have a license. Police then threatened to report her and her 10-year-old brother to the DC Child and Family Services Agency when she refused to give her mother’s name, and the confrontation ultimately escalated, landing Lemus in the hospital. 

“Their ability to pay rent was stolen from them,” said Megan Macaraeg, a labor organizer with Many Languages One Voice, during the forum. She and others are now raising funds for the Lemus family, who’ve stopped selling food because they are still traumatized by what happened less than a month ago. 

Organizers say they disinvited Randy Griffin, the commander of the 4th District police station, from the forum after an unproductive meeting last week between the Lemus family and the Metropolitan Police Department. “There was an unwillingness to empathize with what happened,” said one organizer that attended the meeting.

An MPD spokesperson would not comment any further, citing an internal investigation currently underway. 

But street vendors and activists alike are looking for a long-term solution to a systemic problem. Many street vendors who sell food are operating without a license because of the cumbersome regulatory process to become certified, and this can lead to altercations with law enforcement. 

“On one hand, it’s so complicated and so expensive to get a license that it’s difficult for people to obtain it. But on the other hand, even if they wanted to, there’s a moratorium on the sidewalk permits … Even if people wanted to get these licenses, there’s no way for them to actually get them,” says Brooke Fallon, the assistant director of activism with the Institute for Justice. 

For vendors to sell food in public spaces, they have to go through several government departments: Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) for licensing, which can cost hundreds of dollars; Department of Transportation (DDOT) for permitting, and a sidewalk permit costs $1,200 for two years; and DC Health for code compliance and inspections.  

“This is a lot of money for people who are not making a lot of money,” says Fallon.

Vendors also report a lot of ambiguity in the process to get approval for sidewalk vending. Fallon says she’s heard from DCRA that it is not giving out vending site permits anymore and, anecdotally from sellers, that DCRA hasn’t renewed them. It’s unclear how long reports such as these have been circulating. All the while, vendors are being fined for operating illegally.

But DCRA says it does hand out such permits if the vendor abides by the rules.

“Before a license can be issued, the applicant must demonstrate that their business is in compliance with the District’s regulations. These regulations, which include operational and design standards for food carts and stands, are in place to protect the health and safety of District consumers. When a vending operation does not meet the District’s regulations, they cannot be issued a license. DCRA has issued licenses to sidewalk vendors who follow the regulations in place to protect the public,” says DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah, via email. 

Fallon and other organizers have been working with Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to resolve the issues vendors are facing. And on Monday evening, Nadeau released a plan that bypasses the need for legislative action. The idea is to create a special vending zone under regulation 570. The idea sounds similar to Unity Market in Adams Morgan, which closed due to bureaucracy.  

How it would work: First, Nadeau’s office and the vendors would need to work together to secure a location for vendors to legally prepare food (possibly EatsPlace on Georgia Avenue NW); second, they would identify a zone for vending (Nadeau has been looking at parks in her ward, but Fallon says they are waiting on input from vendors); third, Nadeau’s office would look for a way to help vendors meet health requirements (she says she knows of an organization that would provide this training for free); and lastly, the concerned parties would identify an organization that would run the vending development zone (“It would be like a market where all the vendors could operate,” Fallon explains). 

The proposal, which is still being worked out, would need to be approved by several agencies including the Department of Small & Local Business Development, DC Health, the Office of Planning, DDOT and DCRA. 

“I know the councilmember and certainly our organization, we’re interested in also looking at D.C. code to figure out whether we want to make some long-term legislative changes that can help address some of these issues because the development zone will be great, but that only helps the vendors who are in the area of Columbia Heights, where that zone is probably,” says Fallon. “We would like to see the whole process streamlined and simplified for street vendors all across the city.”

Organizers are encouraged by the plan, but want the Council to preserve street food culture. They want lawmakers to legalize street vending, as it’s effectively illegal for many who cannot obtain the right documentation. In recent years, localities where sidewalk vending is a fixture of city life have looked into making it easier for sellers. In 2018, California legalized sidewalk vending and required municipalities to regulate it. The L.A. Council actually decriminalized street vending in 2017 for fear that having it remain illegal put sellers at risk of deportation. Fallon also worked with Chicago organizers to legalize food cart vending there, a model she recommends the D.C. Council looks into. And New York also has existing legislation that would make it easier for street vendors to operate, including an ability-to-pay provision which allows a person to complete community service in lieu of paying the total fine.   

At the very least, Macaraeg asks that Nadeau introduce a resolution that says she stands in solidarity with street vendors as it would mean a lot to her constituents who describe being accosted by police while they operate food carts in the Columbia Heights area. 

“They make resolutions over the most meaningless things at City Council. In fact, she got behind emergency legislation called Dining With Dogs to let people bring their dogs on patios. And so, I think it would be really really important to say ‘right this second, we are working on decriminalizing this over the long hall, but tomorrow I’m going to introduce a resolution that says street vending needs to be decriminalized,’” says Macaraeg. “It would send a strong message.”   

City Desk tried to speak with Nadeau before Tuesday’s legislative meeting at the Wilson Building, but she dodged questions. When we asked her spokesperson, Thomas Fazzini, about introducing a resolution, he said via email: “Legalizing the work of the affected street vendors is the goal of all of this work. The path outlined… is the most expedient way to do so.” 

Organizers are ultimately hoping Nadeau, and the Council writ large, takes a stronger position—namely against the police who, they say, are terrorizing vendors.

One Ward 1 resident asked his councilmember during the public forum if she would sign onto a letter that demands no increase in police presence or MPD’s budget should the mayor’s office request it. 

Nadeau responded, “I think probably yes, but I don’t want to commit to something I haven’t seen yet.”

“The answer we are hoping for is ‘Yes.’ ‘Probably yes’ does not help end the crisis and the violence that we are seeing from the state,” he said in turn.