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San Diego slashes new street vendor permit fee to $38 in response to backlash

Street vendors do business in Ocean Beach in 2019.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Facing pressure from immigrants rights groups and advocates for racial equity, San Diego slashed from $230 to $38 the annual permit fee that street vendors must pay under a new ordinance that takes effect in most of the city in mid-June.

Before the ordinance can take full effect in coastal areas, including Point Loma and Ocean Beach, it must be heard by the California Coastal Commission for specifics about its impacts in the coastal zone. That hearing is not yet scheduled.

San Diego’s sidewalk vending ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect in most of the city June 1, must be heard by the California Coastal Commission for specifics about its effects in La Jolla and other coastal areas.

The City Council’s decision May 17 to shrink the proposed fee by 83 percent came in the wake of criticism that Mayor Todd Gloria plans to add 44 employees to the city workforce to enforce the law, which some community leaders call too aggressive.

The council has always characterized the new law as a delicate balance between supporting vendors and preventing them from changing the look and feel of many popular locations.

The law, which the council first approved in March, partially bans street vendors in parks and certain pedestrian-heavy areas, such as Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter. It also institutes fines and possible impoundment for rules violations.

The council gave the new law a required second approval May 17 and it will take effect 30 days later. The council then approved the fee reduction. Both votes were 8-1, with Councilwoman Vivian Moreno voting no.

“I continue to be concerned about the level of resources the city is allocating toward enforcement of the street vendor ordinance,” Moreno said. “You would think this is the main priority of the city if you were looking at our budget.”

Annual costs for enforcement are estimated at $5 million, which covers new code enforcement officers, new park rangers and new trash collection workers who may have to confiscate the pushcarts of scofflaw vendors.

The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium says San Diego’s handling of street vendors violates the spirit of California’s Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (also known as Senate Bill 946), which took effect Jan. 1, 2019, and aims to encourage vending as a new form of entrepreneurship.

“The enforcement-heavy budget does little to support sidewalk vendors and is the antithesis of state law,” the group said in a letter to the city.

While Moreno focused on enforcement, the rest of the council focused on how much vendors must pay for annual permits.

Gloria’s staff proposed $230, Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell (whose District 2 includes Point Loma and Ocean Beach) proposed $100, and Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe suggested $38 — an amount equal to the annual cost of a city business license.

“I firmly believe that setting the fee ... high will exclude existing and emerging entrepreneurs,” Montgomery Steppe said.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said no one is getting rich as a street vendor.

“It’s back-breaking, they work hard and they do this without a ton of other options,” he said. “In the spirit of trying to make sure we expand economic opportunity to those who most need it and most value it, I think this change is a valuable one.”

Councilman Joe LaCava supported the change but expressed concern that the smaller fee would benefit more than just the low-income immigrants the council has in mind.

“I fear ... many other players will take advantage of the free rent on public land,” LaCava said. “I’ve heard of brick-and-mortar retailers that actually say, ‘I’m going to get out of my rent and set up a canopy.’”

LaCava said the city should consider varying permit fees for street vendors based on factors such as income and whether they are just starting out.

Many brick-and-mortar businesses complain that the majority of vendors are not struggling immigrants but rather are employees of large vendor organizations that deploy carts in high-traffic areas across the city at strategic times.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert suggested San Diego could vary the fees based on location, with high-traffic spots like Balboa Park and beach areas costing more.

City officials said they based the $230 proposal on a survey of other cities with vendor fees, including cities with beach areas.

The proposal to shrink the fee to $38 started with Erin Grassi, policy director of Alliance San Diego, a group focused on racial equity and related issues.

“The proposed $230 is extremely high and would cause unnecessary economic hardship for sidewalk vendors,” Grassi told the council. “Without a comprehensive study, it’s really impossible to know how many vendors exist, what fee would be economically feasible for them and what cost the city actually needs to implement the program.”

Since San Diego is unsure how things will go with the vendors expected to get permits, Campbell persuaded her colleagues to attach a one-year “sunset” clause to the new fee.

In spring 2023, city officials will analyze how the law is working, whether the fee is too high or too low, and other consequences and factors.

With the ordinance needing to go before the Coastal Commission regarding coastal areas, LaCava said earlier this month that full implementation in the coastal zone “will not happen this summer.”

The law calls for vendors to stay minimum distances from specific locations, such as 100 feet from lifeguard stations, 25 feet from all beach access points (stairs, ramps, seawalls), 50 feet from other vendors, and 500 feet from permitted events and from schools when in use. Each vendor is to be limited to a maximum area of 24 square feet.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.


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