Is San Diego’s $4.5M street vendor crackdown still necessary? Despite debate, council decides yes

Several vendors set up shop along the boardwalk at the foot of Newport Avenue at Abbott Street in Ocean Beach in 2019.
Several vendors set up shop along the boardwalk at the foot of Newport Avenue at Abbott Street in Ocean Beach in 2019.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Critics say the controversial plan is unnecessary, based on how few carts have been impounded and permits revoked, and that the money could go to other priorities.


San Diego is following through on controversial plans to strengthen its one-year-old crackdown on street vendors with nearly four dozen new city workers to enforce it at a cost of $4.5 million per year.

Critics say vendor carts have been impounded and permits revoked so rarely that much of the money should be spent on other priorities. They stress that problems with vendors have nearly vanished despite limited enforcement so far.

Supporters of strengthening the crackdown say its effectiveness has dwindled a bit since some remarkable early success. They say a growing number of vendors are trying to skirt the new law by claiming their free speech rights are being violated.

The goal of the crackdown was to allow the city to better cope with a flood of vendors that some argued had dramatically changed the look and feel of popular locations like Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Ocean Beach, La Jolla and other beach areas.

Enforcement of the long-awaited law has thus far been limited to inland areas because of state Coastal Commission concerns.

The City Council voted 8-1 Monday to continue subsidizing vendors by charging them low annual permit fees of $38. The fee is part of a city plan to hire park rangers and maintenance staff needed for aggressive enforcement.

The city had planned to add the new staff many months ago, but only two of 44 workers have been hired because of bureaucratic hurdles and the need to negotiate details of the new positions with labor unions.

More than $5 million was included in the city budget for the ongoing fiscal year, but city officials are on track to spend only $1.3 million because they mostly halted proactive outreach and enforcement in October after an early push.

Critics say the failure to follow through on the hiring poses an opportunity to revisit the entire plan, saying that the crackdown has been effective even without aggressive enforcement.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno said much of the $4.5 million the city plans to spend in the upcoming fiscal year on street vendor enforcement should be spent elsewhere.

“I find this to be very frustrating,” she said. “The choice continues to be made to enhance sidewalk vendor enforcement at the expense of other high priorities.”

Moreno said San Diego residents would strongly prefer the money be spent on priorities like hiring more police.

The city’s crackdown has also been called racist by some critics. They note that a large percentage of street vendors are low-income people of color trying to become entrepreneurs.

“I continue to be really bothered about what this is showcasing,” said Moreno, who represents South Bay neighborhoods where many vendors live.

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who represents low-income areas in southeastern San Diego, agreed that $4.5 million seems like too much to spend on enforcement.

“It seems like there could be a better balance,” she said.

Councilmembers Jennifer Campbell and Joe LaCava, who represent the city’s beach communities where vendor problems have been the most significant, said strong enforcement is crucial.

“You could not even walk across the street from Mission Bay Park to Mission Bay beach because it was completely crowded with vendors,” Campbell said. “This made tourists angry at us, and it made people in the beach communities angry because they couldn’t even walk in front of their homes.”

LaCava agreed, hailing the huge difference since the crackdown began.

“It’s instructive to remember the dramatic impact this ordinance made once it was actually adopted,” he said. “The enforcement was incredibly effective, and my constituents were very, very pleased.”

But LaCava said “there is a slow creeping back” that concerns him.

LaCava said the $38 permit fee, which is much lower than in many other cities, is part of a compromise the city is making. The city is keeping the fee low but also promoting strong enforcement, he said.

Campbell noted that vendor permits would be about $4,000 each if the city tried to recover the costs of planned enforcement, which is the city’s usual approach when setting fees.

LaCava also said the city’s expenditures are somewhat exaggerated because the park rangers who will be hired will perform tasks that go beyond enforcing the city’s street vendor law.

Supporters call measure the right balance; critics say it’s racist because most vendors are immigrants of color

The law partially bans street vendors in parks and such pedestrian-heavy areas as Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter.

The new law bans vendors only during the busy summer months in Balboa Park and many of the city’s beach areas. But some beach areas got year-round vendor bans.

Outside of parks, vendors are banned mostly from main thoroughfares in business districts. They are allowed to keep operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.