As summer comes to a close, some Santa Cruz residents hope its conclusion will coincide with the repeal of a recently established ordinance prohibiting street vending along Beach Street.
In March, Santa Cruz City Council, in a split 4-3 vote, approved a seasonal prohibition on sidewalk vendors along Beach Street from Third Street and the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, from April 1 through Oct. 31.
Vendors are still allowed to sell their wares in the vicinity of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, including along Riverside Avenue and Cliff Street. But those areas are a much tighter squeeze for vendors, customers and visitors alike compared to along Beach Street, where thousands of people typically stroll through on their way to the coastal city’s largest tourist attraction.
Santa Cruz’s Director of Planning and Community Development Lee Butler says that the ordinance came about due to a few “unsafe” situations over the last few years, following the state’s 2019 passage of Senate Bill 946, which allows for sidewalk vending. Butler says, in the time since the city had seen issues of overcrowding and access issues on Beach and surrounding streets due to vending.
As such, the city looked at what options it had to fix the situation, leading to the current ordinance. The city requires vendors to have a sidewalk vending permit, and a business license, Butler says. Those cost $30 and $175-180, respectively, and are good for a year. Vendors selling food also need a county health department permit. Butler said that while there have been some questions and missteps, the city believes the process has been a bit smoother for vendors and community members alike.
Before the new rules went into effect, the city estimated more than 50 unpermitted vendors were operating around Cowell Beach, Beach Street and Pacific Avenue. Code Compliance Manager Laura Landry says the vast majority of vendors have gone through the process to get both required documents. She and Butler estimate that there are approximately seven vendors operating without licenses this summer.
By Butler’s estimates, the city currently has 57 permitted vendors, with 25 vendors working along Beach Street and 32 including Pacific Avenue downtown.
For vendors without the required permits and licenses, penalties can add up quickly. A first citation equals $250, a second citation within a year is $500 and a third will cost vendors $1,000.
“It’s cheaper for them to attain the permits than to get a first citation,” Landry said.
The city previously used a lottery system to award sidewalk vending permits, and, last summer, it approved six vendors to sell their products. Brent Forsyth, one of the six lottery winners, works both near the Boardwalk and downtown, where the city works with vendors via a reservation system operated by the Parks & Recreation Department. He says the last two years have been tough on street vendors.
“Vending is hard work—you’re dealing with some of the elements in [both locations], including the open container rules near the Boardwalk,” he says. “The city says it’s a ‘work in progress,’ and it takes time—but they haven’t done anything.”
This summer, Isaias Gebre has regularly gone out to connect with vendors at their tables and carts, and act as an intermediary and translator when Santa Cruz Police Department or city officials try to move or ticket the vendors. He says that many of the vendors he works with—most of whom are Mexican and primarily speak Spanish or other Mexican indigenous languages—have worked in this area for years, and the city’s new policy makes it that much tougher for the vendors to make a living.
“So many people have lost so much money,” he says, noting some vendors have had to decide between rent payments or kitchen license payments due to the discrepancies.
Recently, Gebre connected us with a few of the long-time vendors near the Beach Street area, selling food, handmade crafts, boogie boards and hats. Of the three vendors we spoke with, all shared they had lost anywhere from 50-80% of their earnings under the new ordinance this summer compared to years past.
Guillermina, who did not want to use her last name, believes she’s lost 70% of her income this summer. She says she’s worked by the beach since 2018 selling hot dogs, agua fresca, fresh fruit and other items. Because she’s selling food, she is also required to rent a spot at a commercial kitchen for food prep, which runs $3,500 a month.
“My only hope is that, this November, we can get back on Beach Street and make whatever revenue we can,” she says.
Imelda, who did not want to use her last name, sells shirts, ponchos, hats and blankets with her partner on Cliff Street. She says that on top of bringing in 50% less revenue this summer than in previous years many vendors also face issues related to the pandemic.
“We used to sell at the Flea Market, but it’s been closed since Covid,” she says.
These struggles convinced Gebre to begin filming vendors’ interactions with SCPD and city code enforcement officers as well as everyday residents. In videos posted to the TikTok account @Street_Vendors_Coalition, officers appear to take the vendors’ goods and write up tickets even for permitted sellers. In others, Gebre captures interactions between vendors and a person who he says is a code enforcement officer who constantly calls SCPD on the vendors. His TikTok account had more than 24,000 followers before it was banned a few months ago. Some of the videos are still available on his Instagram account, street_vendors_coalition_831.
Gebre has also launched a change.org petition, calling for the city to revoke its ban. So far, that petition has over 3,400 signatures.
“It’s so hard to talk about what’s happening down here without people seeing it,” he says. “We want to document these experiences, and make sure businesses and the Boardwalk don’t scapegoat the vendors.”
Butler and Landry say they understand the vendors’ frustrations and believe the city will assess what future changes they can establish with the ordinance.
“Vendors appreciate the fact that we did a lot of outreach in advance to let them know what was transpiring,” Landry says. “That communication aspect has definitely improved—they all have my cell number, and feel more comfortable calling me.”
To support the vendors and again speak out about the ordinance, Gebre says he will host a peaceful demonstration along Beach Street this coming weekend, in line with the Boardwalk’s Fiesta en la Playa Day, which, according to the Boardwalk’s website, will be a celebration of the “vibrant traditions of the Latino community with mariachi, folklorico dancers, and a free beach concert.”
More information on the Street Vendors Coalition Instagram page.