Legislation Introduced to Decriminalize Street Vending

Vendors United, andThe Beloved Community Incubator have been working on this issue. The bill combines two introduced last year by Nadeau. Screenshot: belovedcommunityincubator.org

At a Press conference Tuesday morning, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau announced they have co-introduced the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act of 2023.

The legislation, which was announced at a Columbia Heights press event with dozens of street vendors, consolidates two bills Nadeau introduced in the previous legislative session.

If the bill passes it would make DC the third major city in the US to reform its vendor licensing regulations, after New York City and Los Angeles.

“It is not the right public policy to have regulations so onerous and burdensome that ordinary people – many of whom are immigrants and people of color – cannot enter this line of work and make a living,” said Mendelson. He said the bill is a first but important step to reform DC’s street vending licensing regime and decriminalize vending.

The legislation formalizes the vending of food and artisanal goods as local industry and as part of DC culture. It would also streamline the business licensing system currently in place, which vendors have said is complex and costly as well as poorly aligned with the nature of street vending businesses. Finally, and crucially, say many vendors, it removes police from enforcement of vending rules, a potential source of tension and fear for vendors.

“Street vendors contribute to the vibrant atmosphere of Columbia Heights, to the local economy, and to supporting themselves and their families,” Nadeau said. “We’re removing barriers to licensed street vending. I’m thrilled that we now have the support of the Council Chairman to move this forward and finally allow people to operate without barriers and without fear.”

Vendors have been advocating for this change for a while. Last July, members of advocacy groups Vendors United and the Vendors United Food Coop rallied with supporters telling stories of retrospective taxation, fines, bureaucratic red tape, harassment, and even threats of family separation made to undocumented working parents.

Madhvi Bahl is an organizer with Sanctuary DMV. In a statement, he said ”the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act will finally release vendors from the trap created by an inaccessible licensing process and brutal police enforcement of vending laws.”

Street vendors like “Colochita” (Maria) Guevarra and “Queeny” (Hilary) Belfon spoke at the conference. Together, they have more than 60 years experience vending on the streets of the Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods in Ward `, selling food and clothing from their respective homelands of El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. Both say they have suffered through harsh weather, changes in consumer demand and the indignities of police harassment and assault.

While other street vendors are newer to the work, there is a palpable sense of relief and joy among all the members of this unique sector of DC’s informal economy workers. “This is the big change we’ve been waiting for! I went to see Señor Mendelson in his office in December. I’m so proud of my community and grateful he is taking real action,” says Eloisa Diaz, an Afro-Latina street vendor from Venezuela.

Sunni Stewart, a mother of four and a newcomer to DC’s vending scene, welcomed a cheaper and easier path to getting a street vending license. “It’s not that we don’t want to be licensed, it’s just so expensive, difficult, and tedious … that and I’m always looking over my shoulder, wondering if the police are going to come for me today,” she said in the association’s press release.

Mendelson’s office said the legislation addresses public safety through a racial justice lens, removing violations of street vending from criminal penalties. Enforcement will now be solely under the jurisdiction of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection (DLCP).

“There’s no need for police to be involved when someone is vending without a license,” Nadeau said. “It is not a public safety issue and our response should not be to send armed police officers to enforce these regulations. Sidewalk vendors promote safety by being a regular presence and eyes on the street. They in turn should feel safe in their own community.”

Licensed vendors, such as Kahssay Ghebrebrhan, an Ethiopian hotdog and half-smoke vendor who raised three nieces on his vending income, also were recorded as welcoming the reforms to a regulatory regime that they say has frequently left them feeling demoralized and confused. “I call DCRA (now DLCP, the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection), they tell me to call the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR). I call OTR, they tell me to call DCRA,” Gheberebrhan said. “I go into OTR and they laugh in my face. No one seems to care about the humble guy, the little guy.”

You can see the full text of the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act of 2023 online.