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Los Angeles Moves Closer To Legalizing Sidewalk Food Vendors


Head out in L.A., and you'll see tens of thousands of street vendors. But they are all operating without permits. That soon could change. As Parker Yesko reports, one thing helping is local anger over President Trump's immigration policies.

PARKER YESKO, BYLINE: You can buy almost anything on a sidewalk in Los Angeles.

ESTELA PERALTA: Tres tortilla.

YESKO: In the city's Pinata District, southeast of downtown, tabletop shops offer baby clothes, cell phone accessories, even lunch. Estela Peralta chops brazed carnitas and serves it up with a variety of homemade salsas.

ESTELA PERALTA: Mira, estes guacamole, lleva avocado, tomato y chile.

YESKO: Her husband, Enrique, is known for his crispy pork skins. When he left Mexico for the U.S., his dad gave him one piece of advice.

ENRIQUE PERALTA: (Through interpreter) You should always dedicate yourself to what you know - making chicharrón and making carnitas. A pig always has feet and a head. There, you'll have no problem.

YESKO: The Peraltas do have one problem, though. Their little street food operation is illegal. Selling on L.A. sidewalks isn't allowed, even though 50,000 vendors do it openly. For years, they've had their wares confiscated, been ticketed, even charged with misdemeanor crimes. Peralta thinks the penalties are unfair.

ENRIQUE PERALTA: (Through interpreter) I don't know who decided it's a crime. Selling drugs in the streets - yes. But street vending is not a crime.

YESKO: Many of L.A.'s street vendors are immigrants like the Peraltas. And for the ones that are in the U.S. unlawfully, contact with law enforcement can have especially serious consequences like deportation. City Councilman Jose Huizar represents the district where the Peraltas and many other vendors sell. He proposed legalization in 2014 but says he couldn't get political buy-in. Now...

JOSE HUIZAR: Once Trump was elected and his anti-immigration, anti-Latino rhetoric was at the forefront of his campaign, council members around the city council decided to move forward.

YESKO: Just weeks after inauguration day, the council voted unanimously to decriminalize street vending. Huizar says the city is now drafting a legal permitting plan.

HUIZAR: We didn't want to take a chance in further assisting with the division of families should some of these individuals get caught up in the court system because of a small infraction.

YESKO: Even neighborhood organizations and business coalitions that have long feared the spread of vending supported decriminalization, but not everyone's happy about permitting the vendors.

MICHAEL ZARABIAN: You know, they make it look cheap. They make it look bad.

YESKO: Restaurant owner Michael Zarabian says the vendors undercut his business.

ZARABIAN: You can't afford to sell same sandwich for $4 with a drink. You're going to sell it for $10 to just survive.

YESKO: Zarabian feels like brick and mortars are held to higher standards. And they're stuck with higher overhead.

ZARABIAN: The food costs 35 percent - utility bill, rent, phone, cable, TV, fax, employment tax.

CLARE FOX: If we onboard street vendors into a formal economy, they'll be paying taxes. They'll be buying their business permits. And they are procuring their products from other suppliers.

YESKO: Clare Fox is executive director of the L.A. Food Policy Council, which provided recommendations for the new vending ordinance. She says legalization is a win for all sides.

FOX: Street vendors want this. They're the ones at the forefront of this campaign saying, hey, we're in. We want to get a permit and play ball.

YESKO: That ability to play ball is exactly what Enrique Peralta wants for his family and business.

ENRIQUE PERALTA: Si todos somos iguales.

YESKO: "Everyone's equal," he says. And the injustice upsets him.

ENRIQUE PERALTA: (Through interpreter) It's like if somebody cut your wings. What would you do without wings? What would you do? Nothing.

YESKO: Peralta says he makes an honest living. And now he wants to make a legal one. For NPR News, I'm Parker Yesko in Los Angeles.