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Crusading for the Rights of Street Vendors: Q&A with Rudy Espinoza

2018 was a banner year for Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that specializes in supporting equitable local economies. Not only was he named a 2019 Rubinger Fellow, but last November, the Los Angeles City Council finally voted to legalize street vending, a campaign that Espinoza, LURN and a coalition of vendor-leaders and community developers had been waging for nearly a decade.

As a long-time advocate for L.A.’s street vendors who have had to contend with harassment, fines and confiscation of their equipment and wares, Rudy Espinoza sees L.A.'s recent legalization as a huge step in the direction of fair treatment and economic opportunity for vendors. But, he adds, it’s only part of the story, and he is using his Rubinger Fellowship to bolster LURN’s work to deploy low-interest loans and business coaching for micro-entrepreneurs by getting certified as a CDFI and creating a $300,000 loan pool.  

We recently checked in with Espinoza about what’s next for L.A.’s street vendors, the issues at stake for people working in the informal economy and where to find his favorite quesadillas.

How did you and LURN first start working to legalize street vending?

This was one of the first projects my organization took on ten years ago. It was the height of the recession, and we were inspired by these entrepreneurs in our neighborhood who were extremely resilient. Recession or not, they recognized that the economy wasn’t working for them. Many were older immigrant women who couldn’t find a stable job—so they took it upon themselves to create their own businesses to support their families.

Espinoza, flanked by coalition members, speaking at a press conference last year.
Espinoza, flanked by coalition members, speaking at a press conference last year.

Until last fall, Los Angeles was one of the only major cities in the country that criminalized street vending, and we saw that these members of our community needed support. The reason I care about vending is because I see these folks as incredible workers who are rebuked from our system. Legalization of street vending is more than just a policy win. The success of our loan fund is more than “we just did this many loans this year.” It’s a bigger conversation about income inequality and how we need to restructure how our systems work.

It’s estimated that street vending in L.A. generates more than $500 million a year for the city’s economy. It’s also an integral part of the area’s rich culinary and retail culture. Why did it take so long to get legalized?

I think the first thing is political will. Los Angeles is a massive, complicated city and it really requires a lot of political will to drive something like this forward. It isn’t just a matter of making a decree. Somebody once said that it’s easier to raise the minimum wage than to legalize street vending, and what they meant was that you raise the minimum wage and that’s kind of it. Everybody has to step up to that.

But legalizing street vending requires cross-departmental partnerships within city and state government. Lots of elected officials we approached said they loved street vendors, and patronize them themselves, but that it just wasn’t the right time. We had to find people who were bold and audacious enough to say “yeah, why not?”

I care about street vending because I see these folks as incredible workers who are rebuked from our system.

The second factor is that the street vendor population doesn’t have political capital. At city council meetings, we outnumbered the business association members 10 or 15 to one. But they could so easily get access to council members that we struggled to get access to. And you have to imagine it’s because those folks have resources, they have connections.

And third, it also required a lot of hard conversations with brick and mortar businesses that saw vendors as the competition.

So how do you build bridges with those small businesses that see street vending as a threat?

What’s really important is that the small business community and the vendors be able to understand each other. When they ask each other questions and listen to each other, they start to realize that their concerns are the same.

Vendors want their streets to be clean, too. Vendors want to make sure that people don’t get sick from their food—just like restaurants. A lot of vendors have been asking to be taxed—they want to be part of the system—and some are even interested in being part of a business improvement district. I think the fear that some brick and mortar businesses have is not a fear of vendors—vendors are often scapegoats—but about their businesses going under, about not being able to provide for their families. And that’s a much broader economic issue.

What are the biggest challenges still facing street vendors?

First, I’d say that very often, policy doesn’t work for the people we care about, in the communities we work in. We were able to work with our partners to legalize street vending, but now it’s about implementing the regulations properly. Making sure that the permitting and taxation is done in a way that makes sense for everyone.

The second thing is access to capital. Early on we heard from vendors saying “you know what? When street vending is legal, we’re going need equipment that’s certified by the state health department.” That equipment is expensive. A lot of these entrepreneurs don’t qualify for a loan from mainstream lenders and even many non-profit lenders. We saw this as an opportunity to prototype a product that gives capital to these entrepreneurs that we know deserve it. (Photo at top shows Espinoza celebrating with the owners of Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla, who purchased a food truck with micro-financing from LURN.)

Celebrating the legalization of street vending last fall with Faustino Martínez, a vendor-leader who serves on the steering committee of the LA Street Vendor Campaign and makes his living selling bolis—ice pops—in South Los Angeles.
Celebrating the legalization of street vending last fall with Faustino Martínez, a vendor-leader who serves on the steering committee of the LA Street Vendor Campaign and makes his living selling bolis—ice pops—in South Los Angeles.

How is the Rubinger Fellowship helping with this?

This work is hard, and our society doesn’t value it. I say that because people in our field are super under-paid and they don’t have the resources to do what they need to do. And over the course of several years, building an organization, driving forward an initiative, it really wears you down.

For me, the fellowship is an opportunity to take a step back, think, be creative, build, do research—and not have to run from one meeting to the next! Especially after this last year, which was really huge for us, our organization is at a crossroads. We were able to collaborate on this great, momentous thing of legalizing street vending in LA and in California, and now we have to think about how we serve this population and how we pivot. The development of our loan fund is part of that.

You probably can’t play favorites in your line of work, but do you have a particular street vendor or area for street food in the city that you like to patronize?

You can’t go wrong with Caridad Vasquez, one of our vendor-leaders, who sells incredible tacos and quesadillas in Boyle Heights. MacArthur Park is also a great center for street vending. I have my local vendor near the park where I live, and I go there all the time. He’s been there for decades and sells elote—[Mexican grilled corn]. He’s a staple in the neighborhood, and now he’s got a line every day, and he uses a Square for his sales. It’s a great local business that people love.

Michael Rubinger Community Fellowship

They come from all corners of the country, and all share a deep commitment to helping their communities thrive. Meet the 2019 Fellows. 

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Street vending contributes more than $500 million to the Los Angeles economy.