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Street Vendors Vow Not to Be 'Bullied'

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008; B04

Street vendors pulled their carts off the District's sidewalks yesterday afternoon to attend a public hearing on legislation that they fear could put them out of business.

In a room packed with about 200 people at the John A. Wilson Building, vendors testified about possibly losing spots where they have operated for years, facing higher fees and being pushed out of the industry, partly because of the city's efforts to diversify the items offered by food vendors.

Brenda Sayles, 60, who peddles souvenirs and other goods, said the city is rewriting rules at a time when vendors are struggling to stay afloat. "This economy is in a sluggish state," said Sayles, who has been vending for 23 years. "I've had other vendors tell me fifty dollars is a great day for them."

Last week, the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation that allows the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to craft new regulations, including setting fees, assigning locations and creating zones where new types of vending can be tested. The permanent legislation is pending.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the city will have to see what stays, what goes and what is added to the permanent bill by talking to vendors before further action is taken.

But many vendors said yesterday that they doubt anyone would listen to them and that they did not trust city government. Although city officials have said that their spots would be grandfathered to them, there is no such language in the legislation.

"Their motive is to sell our spots at auction to the highest bidder," said Leterbrhan Imam, 51, who operates a hot dog stand in front of the Department of Motor Vehicles on C Street NW.

Her testimony drew applause when she said the vendors refused to be "bullied" and forced out of business. Imam assembled about 50 women, mostly immigrants from east African countries, to attend the hearing. They wore white T-shirts with black lettering that said "I am a mother of 1," "I am a mother of 4" or "breadwinner of my family."

In an interview, Imam, originally from Eritrea, said vending has been a way to capture the American dream, especially for female immigrants. "It kills me inside and out. Some of them can't read or write [English], but they can sell," she said. "In this country, I could make my own money. I could have my own mind. Now . . ."

Vendors directed much of their anger toward city agencies, particularly the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and vending coordinator Sam Williams.

At one point, Cheh told vendors with complaints to sit next to Williams, who was in the audience, and share their concerns. "The seat is open. Go take that seat," she told one vendor after another. "I think we should get a collection of chairs next to Mr. Williams."

Williams said in an interview that vendors' fees do not cover the costs of regulating the industry and that his office will negotiate a new fee structure with vendors. A standard two-year food vending license is $383, and a nonfood license is $321. The city's 603 street vendors also pay $375 a quarter in lieu of sales taxes, or $1,500 annually.

Vendors sighed and shouted during the testimony of entrepreneur Gabe Klein, who has received exceptions to current regulations for his company On the Fly to operate two electric vending carts downtown. Some vendors and owners of warehouses that sell them their hot dogs say the city has been favoring Klein because he offers gourmet cuisine and fits with the city's vision for the future of vending.

In a 2006 survey conducted by the city, 82 percent of respondents said they wanted more street food options. The current fare is mostly hot dogs, chips, candy and soda.

Cheh asked Klein how he got two spots downtown when current law says vendors can be licensed for only one spot.

Klein said he participated in two lotteries for spots, but because his company has more than one licensed vendor, several names were submitted.

"If I only had one shot at it, and you had 10 shots at it . . . that's not fair," Cheh said, drawing applause.

In an interview, Klein said he put four names into the hat each time.

After the six-hour hearing, Williams said he understood the concerns. "People have real fears, and it's based on real problems in the past," he said.

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