MIAMI - Willy Ruiz said selling hand-woven Panama hats in Miami-Dade County allowed him to put his two kids through college.
For about a decade, he and his wife Maria Ruiz set up a hat stand at a parking lot at McDonald's, 1400 SW 8th St., in Miami's Little Havana. Ruiz, of Peru, said the "toquilla" palm hats made in Ecuador were popular among tourists.
The day his Little Havana hat stand closed was a sad one for Ruiz. When police cited a street vendor at the nearby Maximo Gomez Domino Park, 801 SW 15th Ave., he was afraid. About three months ago, a police officer walked up to him and said he couldn't sell his hats there anymore.
"The restaurant manager tried to explain that the property owner had allowed me to sell my hats there for many years," Ruiz said in Spanish. "The police officer didn't listen. I didn't have a stationary license. I had a Miami-Dade County vendor license. It wasn't enough. I was devastated."
Ruiz, 57, contested the citation in court and won. He recently co-founded a group named the United Vendors of South Florida, which Ruiz said represents hundreds of street vendors in the same predicament. Esther Ochoa, of the United Vendors of South Florida, said the group's first fight is against Miami's "oppressive" laws.
"They [City of Miami officials] are asking us for a permit that doesn't exist. They don't issue it, yet they require it," Ruiz said in Spanish. "They threaten our livelihood. They harass us with legal charges. We are just trying to run an honest, legal business. It's not fair."
Pedro Araujo lives on a Biscayne Boulevard high-rise near the AmericanAirlines Arena. He is one of the many residents who like the city's restrictions on some street vendors. He said he likes the "flower people" on the stop lights, but that's about it.
"It doesn't look nice to have the sidewalks crowded like that. It's so much cleaner this way," Araujo said. "Not seeing the hot dog stands like in New York makes Miami cleaner and a more pleasant place to go out for a run."
Miami doesn't allow street vendors to stay in one place, or to place items on the ground. Street vendors who break the rules face misdemeanor charges, potential jail time, and a $500 fine per infraction.
"Miami's street vendor laws are some of the worst I have seen in the country," said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm working with street vendors nationwide. "They are being thrown in jail for putting things on the ground."
Walsh said the laws have nothing to do with protecting the public's health and safety. They only serve to make it more difficult for vendors to earn an honest living, Walsh said. A lawsuit the firm filed in behalf of street vendors in Hialeah in 2011 got commissioners to lift similar restrictions last year.
Soledad Cedro hopes Miami will follow in their footsteps. She said The LIBRE Initiative, a group she represents, seeks to help immigrants nationwide to "obtain economic freedom." Cedro said the regulations deteriorate the business climate.
"Hispanics culturally come from places where street vendors are not unusual," Cedro said. "Economic freedom is a way to become more prosper and over regulation of street vendors prevents that."
Cedro said her organization is supportive of Ruiz's effort. He now runs his Willys Hats and Craft business out of Hialeah. He hasn't set up his hat stand in Little Havana parking lot, because he is afraid. But he continues to sell his hats at events such as Little Havana's "Viernes Culturales" and farmers markets.
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