Every year I notice some legislators seeking community engagement by requesting ideas for new laws. This year I hope a bold lawmaker produces a program called, “There Ought to be a Law…Repealed!”
The 2018 law, known as the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, is a disaster in many ways. According to the exact language of this law, it is supposed to provide opportunities to low income and immigrant people, increase access to desired goods, create safe dynamic spaces and decriminalize entrepreneurs. What it has done is encourage individuals to set up non-tax-generating, cash businesses, nearly anywhere, with no regard for the rules that brick-and-mortar businesses must comply with. These rules include, but are not limited to, handicap access, insurance requirements, parking and traffic norms, health regulations, employee rights and working conditions.
Usually, the goods being sold on street corners are easily found elsewhere, oftentimes in nearby businesses. Most of the hardworking people sitting on buckets hawking flowers, fruit, comforters and glo-toys are not entrepreneurs, but vulnerable hourly workers being paid under the table in cash. To suggest otherwise is laughable.
The safe and dynamic spaces these operations are supposedly creating are often on busy street corners, in residential areas or on private property.
Nearly every unaccounted transaction by a street vendor decreases tax revenues that municipalities are so desperate for. State lawmakers have essentially legitimized the black-market and will never reap the tax and social benefits from these vendors offered by traditional businesses. This unfettered capitalism, where rules apply to some and not others, is bad for businesses and worse for the workers.
Additionally, these hardworking people are needed elsewhere. In this new-normal of low unemployment, years of dysfunctional federal immigration laws and California’s need and openness for immigrant labor, these folks would be better served working at businesses, where they are wanted. They would receive, at the very minimum, state mandated workers’ rights, wages, benefits and basic human dignity. Doing so would also give them a chance to assimilate, an integral part of successful immigration, instead of segregated from society sitting on a milk crate in the dead of winter or hot summer sun wondering where they will go to the bathroom.
Certainly, authors of this law would cite language that allows for localities to adapt the law to fit their own community best.
After five years, the City of Gilroy finally acted to bring some clarity and fairness. Regrettably, by waiting so long, it has exacerbated our local challenges and frustrations now associated with the ridiculous state rules. Sadly, even before 2018 when street vendors lacked the backing of state law, Gilroy, for years, allowed illegal vendors to peddle goods with near impunity. Now, a flexible but firm, consistent, proactive approach with some tenacious, creative, business acumen is required, more than ever.
City management must strike a balance in adhering to state law but doing what’s best for Gilroy. Typically, downtown business and entertainment districts routinely host venues such as music series, farmers markets, car shows and wine strolls. Yes, food stalls are another excellent example!
These great events help downtown areas increase business on historically slower days while simultaneously partnering with and promoting these micro-businesses. It can be a productive partnership! But, an infinite number of these pop-up venues can’t be allowed to have unrestricted access to the most profitable times of the week while the brick-and-mortar businesses are left trying to make it during slower periods. This path is unsustainable.
The good news is that tens of millions of dollars of private investment has been made in our downtown to bring residences, restaurants, self-care shops, microbrews, as well as financial, insurance and other professional services. We are so close to having the vibrant downtown we’ve all been waiting for.
However, consumers have made it clear that they want additional eateries downtown. Until those permanent ones are in place, the City of Gilroy must find ways to run a tightly managed food-vendor program that helps meet the needs of the paying customer, provides opportunities for legitimate, lawful vendors, while providing breathing room for brick-and-mortar businesses until they become profitable.
Greg Bozzo is a resident of Gilroy.