What George Billingsley encountered in front of his plant-selling business one morning a few months ago infuriated him. The owner of My Back Yard Nursery in City Heights looked out on the sidewalk in front of his converted cottage and saw a man who had set up shop there. He was selling plants of his own.

Not in front of My Back Yard, Billingsley thought.

The vendor had parked himself in front of the business owned by the president of the City Heights Business Association, who decided then and there that something had to be done about illegal street vendors.

That decision has set off a renewed push in recent weeks by the city to curb violations by unlicensed street vendors after previously abandoning enforcement in the face of mounting budget cuts. The effort is overdue, City Heights business owners say, because of the strangling effect that illegal vendors have had on their businesses’ bottom lines.

Enrique Gandarilla, the business association’s director, said street vendors have mucked up neighborhoods, blocked sidewalks, and unfairly competed with businesses that pay taxes and secure required permits and licenses.

In City Heights, unlicensed vendors have hawked their merchandise for years. In neighborhoods and along main thoroughfares across City Heights, where many immigrant residents come from countries with robust street vendor cultures, they sell everything from popsicles to corn on the cob to cheese to underwear, out of front yards, car trunks, push carts, and strollers.

But business owners, residents and police all say there has been a proliferation of unlicensed vendors in the last two years, partly the result of high unemployment in the low-income community, as well as reduced enforcement of city code regulating such sales.

“Some people say the budget cuts have not had any real impacts on neighborhoods. This is one case where the impact has been profound,” said City Councilman Todd Gloria, who took up the issue after he was approached by the business association. Gloria called a meeting earlier this month with city staff, business representatives, and the San Diego Police Department to find out what could be done.

The city’s neighborhood code compliance department last year stopped enforcing city laws prohibiting the sale of goods from carts on public sidewalks and in people’s front yards, in favor of focusing on code violations that posed a direct danger to public safety.

The Police Department, facing similar pressures, has made roving vendors a low priority, in favor of directing police resources to combating more serious crimes.

“This is just really low on our totem pole,” said Dave Felkins, the Police Department’s community liaison for City Heights.

But business owners have been crying foul with greater frequency in recent months. They pay for costly health permits, business licenses, and insurance plans that are meant to protect customers, collect taxes, and ensure fair competition with other businesses. Street vendors do not, putting customers at risk and siphoning needed city revenue, business owners say.

As a result, the city’s neighborhood code compliance department and the Police Department have agreed to do more to stop the illegal sales. They will take a soft stance at first, focusing on educating vendors about what’s legal and what’s not, and then ramp up enforcement and citations if things don’t improve.

The neighborhood code compliance department, which enforces zoning, will focus on stationary vendors, said Bob Vacchi, the department’s director. A garage sale in front of a home is legal, but only up to three times per year. Setting up a cart or selling on a public sidewalk is not.

The Police Department, which could enforce violations by roving unlicensed cart vendors but hasn’t, has also committed to deploy officers to tell vendors they’re violating the law.

Some market owners say those with carts have been especially bad for business.

Two years ago, Alfredo Teon and his sister bought the Candyland Market on Fairmount Avenue, south of University Avenue. The convenience store was ideally situated at an intersection flanked by a middle school and a high school. After-school business from kids on their way home, Teon thought, would be steady.

He didn’t anticipate just how many pushcart vendors would descend on the same intersection, selling ice cream, potato chips, candy and sodas, sometimes just steps from his front door.

“It was so bad,” Teon said. “I would go out there and tell them to stay away from my store, but I was still losing a lot of money.” The loss can total as much as $2,000 a month, he said. He pointed to a corner behind his counter where he keeps the many licenses and business permits that cost him about $2,000 a year.

A county health permit, for example, is required to ensure sanitary food storage and preparation. Many street vendors don’t have one, which not only gives them an unfair advantage, but also means food may be unsafe, he said.

Perfume vendors in a driveway along Fairmount Avenue.|Photo by Fred Greaves

A block from Teon’s store, a young man who declined to give his name displayed perfumes for sale on top of a card table.

A few steps away, Sonia Ramirez was tending to a yard sale she had set up in the driveway to her house, which faces busy Fairmount Avenue. Her sister-in-law, she said, recently left San Diego but left behind plenty of unwanted junk.

Ramirez was trying to sell it on Tuesday, with limited success, since few people need an oversized Winnie the Pooh or unclothed Barbie dolls.

Ramirez was an ice cream vendor herself — a profession her husband still holds, but which she recently gave up. They drove ice cream trucks, which each cost them more than $500 a year in permits, including a county health permit and a music permit, not to mention the costs of fuel, maintenance and parking spots in a truck lot.

But the competition got to be too much in recent years. When she would stop in neighborhoods, she said, unlicensed vendors would wheel their own carts up to her truck and sell ice cream and chips within feet of it.

“Sometimes right next to me!” she said in Spanish. On many days, her profit amounted to less than $100.

“Finally I said this is too much. I can’t do this anymore.” Three months ago, she sold the truck. Now she cleans houses. “I couldn’t compete.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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