The city’s street vendors always had trouble selling food in public spaces. 

Vendors have long detailed how expensive and cumbersome the process to get a license is. Someone would have to go through several government agencies and pay hundreds of dollars to operate legally. For example, a sidewalk permit costs $1,200 for two years. But operating without a license puts vendors at risk of police confrontation. The overwhelming majority of vendors in D.C. are residents of color. 

A bill introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau would formulate and decriminalize street vending. Specifically, the bill would establish designated zones where vendors can legally operate. The bill would also exempt sidewalk vendors from criminal penalties—something vendors and their advocates have long been calling for. Enforcement would be under the purview of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. 

The bill was co-introduced with At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and Elissa Silverman

“They have done everything asked of them, cutting through red tape for years, and they still have not been able to obtain licenses,” says Nadeau in a press release. “For many in Ward 1 and across the District, vending is a main source of income and a way to share their culture. This legislation will allow them to continue working, but now as small business owners in full compliance.” 

After a cell phone video showing police confronting a 15-year-old who was selling food on the sidewalk to help her family went viral in November 2019, Nadeau worked with vendors to make street vending safer and easier. Nadeau had been working with Vendadores Unidos and Many Languages One Voice to develop training and grant programs, so that vendors would meet all the requirements needed to obtain and keep a license. But a moratorium on vending licenses in certain areas made it impossible to navigate the existing legal system. 

The pandemic has hit street vendors especially hard. And vending continues to be the only way these workers get by, even if it is illegal for some to be operating. Many cannot file for unemployment insurance because they are operating without a license and are a part of the informal economy, or because of their immigration status. And the local aid they have received so far barely covers essentials

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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