Miami-Dade County

Street vendors organize, take on Miami laws

Ignoring her aching bones, Esther Ochoa roams the streets of Brickell and Coconut Grove carrying two over-the-shoulder bags stuffed with Famous Amos cookies, bottles of water and other bagged goodies.

Everywhere she goes, she holds a sign: “To survive, I sell snacks.”

The 64-year-old Venezuelan transplant is among Miami-Dade’s 3,000 or so street vendors, who pound pavement while hawking everything from churros and flowers to woven baskets, hand-crafted trinkets and arepas. They also tread a fine line of municipal and county laws, which often place tight restrictions on where and how they can sell their goods.

Ochoa says those regulations pushed her out of Hialeah. And now, she’s finding her new market in Miami has its own tough rules, like one that penalizes standing in place.

“I'm always walking,” she said. “I have to keep moving.”

No more, she says.

Tired of being pushed around by what they say are “oppressive” laws, street vendors are fighting back. With the help of the civil liberties firm Institute for Justice, Ochoa and others have formed the United Vendors of South Florida and vowed to fight for recognition from local lawmakers.

Their first target: the city of Miami.

“Miami’s laws are some of the worst I’ve seen in the nation,” said Christina Walsh, the institute’s director of activism and justice. “The laws make it really difficult for these vendors to earn an honest living.”

To hawk wares legally in Miami, “peddlers” need a business license from both the county and city, which depending on the goods being sold cost between $160 to $500 annually for vendors. Miami laws then prohibit vendors them from selling in public parking lots, near schools and sidewalk cafes, and in some special vending districts.

What can be sold also differs depending on where the vendor is located. In Coconut Grove, only handmade crafts, plants and flowers are permitted. In downtown, vendors can sell only food and flowers and must be selected for a special license via lottery.

And like the county, Miami prohibits vendors from standing in place longer than it takes to make a sale — requirements which the Institute for Justice says are rare for big cities and make street vendors’ jobs dangerous and their licenses near worthless.

“If they show the license to a police officer he’s going to laugh at them and say, you can’t stand still,” said Claudia Edenfield, a local Institute for Justice attorney who has represented Hialeah vendors in a lawsuit against the city.

Officials who control the different licenses, however, say the rules are necessary to keep order.

Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, a semi-autonomous agency that controls the special lottery for street peddler licenses downtown, said the area was “the Wild Wild West” before vending laws were tightened. Now, vendors have to get a downtown license through a lottery, but are allowed to hold their location.

“One of the reasons we regulate is because we have so many people on foot downtown,” Robertson said. “What it’s done is allow us to control the where, when and how that this type of thing is happening.”

Lately, Miami’s 310 licensed street and food truck vendors have found their turf shrinking, with more sidewalk cafes opening up, and prohibitions on street peddling expanding to new areas. Earlier this year, code officers dispersed a market of kiosks in Little Havana’s Domino Park, saying the vendors lacked the proper permits.

One of them was Willy Ruiz, who says he sold handwoven straw Panama hats for 11 years in Little Havana. Ruiz, who helped Ochoa organize, said he does most of his sales from farmers’ markets and festivals now. He said the vendors association has requested sit-downs with city commissioners and Mayor Tomás Regalado.

“We want to explain our positions,” he said. “We want to work. We pay the taxes.”

The group’s requests include a license that would allow all Miami vendors to stand in place while working, sell goods in public parking lots and spaces, place their wares on the ground and get off with a warning on a first offense. (Miami Code Enforcement Director Jessica Capo said the latter is already happening.)

Regalado says he thinks the city should consider the requests, as long as common sense is used.

“The city should accommodate the street vendors because they make an honest living, but we can’t affect the merchants that pay licenses and property taxes and all that,” he said. “We need to look for a balance.”