On a recent Saturday, Michael Sims pointed to a pair of women’s heels that, along with several blouses, a deck of playing cards and an electric razor, were placed on a rug at his feet on Mission Street.
“Needs are paramount. Ninety percent of what I sell is targeting needs,” said Sims, adding that he has made as much as $120 in a day selling used and found items.
Sims is one of dozens of vendors selling their wares at La Pulguita, an unpermitted flea market on the block of Mission Street between 14th and 15th streets that has become the focus of a neighborhood dispute.
“People love to get a bargain,” said Sims, a former car salesman.
At the market, low-income families can “get a bottle of shampoo for $1.50 when times are a little tough,” he said.
“That brings a sense of peace, a little less stress at home,” Sims added. “So I think [the flea market] is something that is needed.”
Not everyone agrees.
For several years, residents of a condominium building at 1875 Mission St. have pressured police and city leaders to crack down on La Pulguita, saying the market has increased crime, trash and unpermitted street sales in the neighborhood.
“The situation is unsafe and dangerous,” said one resident of 1875 Mission St., who requested anonymity. She alleged that the vendors sell “stolen goods” and drugs.
“The amount of garbage and filth that is left behind is unimaginable,” she said.
However, Mission community activists and a handful of other residents of that same building have launched a campaign to save the market, which they say provides affordable goods to the neighborhood’s economically vulnerable residents and serves as a source of income for its largely low-income, undocumented and homeless vendors.
La Pulguita’s advocates are working alongside District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen to propose a two-month pilot program that would relocate the market this summer and legitimize the vendors with city and private dollars.
“We need to make sure the market is organized with some kind of control and a system of accountability … that will increase safety for everybody and continue to provide space [for vendors],” said Carolina Morales, Ronen’s legislative aide.
An application for a peddler’s license with The City costs between $300 and $500, depending on the type of license, and comes with an annual renewal fee.
The plan is to subsidize permit fees for up to 54 vendors to operate on Julian Street, one street away from the market’s current location. The program would also entail shutting down the street during certain hours on weekends, providing tables to vendors, hiring monitors and requiring vendors to adhere to a set of rules.
A goal is to minimize police enforcement and decriminalize low-income vendors who are following the rules.
“We have a very busy precinct. [Calling the police] on the vendors is not a long-term solution,” said Morales.
Currently, police routinely break up the market in response to neighbor’s complaints and, according to some, are issuing citations to the unlicensed vendors.
“The neighbors don’t like it because they think it’s an eyesore,” said Sims, who recently received a citation. “The officer left the ticket blank. He didn’t want to give it, but he had to do his job.”
According to the president of the 1875 Mission St. Homeowners Association, who declined to give his name, the building has become “the epicenter of this market” after the vendors migrated from across the street, where another condo building hired security guards and set up sidewalk barricades as deterrents.
“If this were happening on almost any other sidewalk in The City … it would be immediately stopped,” he said. “The Mission has been a bit of a dumping ground for problems The City hasn’t wanted to deal with.”
A Navigation Center for homeless people currently operates a block away from the market. Over the past year, Ronen and city leaders have focused additional resources on addressing some 150 people who last April were identified as living in tents in the Mission District.
“My neighbors equate those issues to the market,” said Larisa Pedroncelli, a resident of 1875 Mission St. who is advocating for the pilot program. “They say all these people are criminals and do drugs because they haven’t separated the issues here.
“Historically, the market has always happened in the Mission,” she added. “It’s part of the culture.”
Community leader Roberto Hernandez said street vendors, who may not have the access or resources to operate a storefront, have been selling goods on the streets of the Mission for decades, and that complaints came as a wave of gentrification hit the neighborhood in recent years.
“This flea market is very Latino. That’s what you do in Latin America — in every barrio, there’s a place where people sell,” said Hernandez. “From clothes to CDs, household goods and handmade jewelry — if you can’t meet your water bill or need food, you sell what you have to survive.”
Mission District native Andres Rivera said he grew up seeing the informal vendors and patronizes La Pulguita regularly to “buy cheap shirts” and to support his community.
“Most of these folks, they are not hurting anybody,” said Rivera. “They are from here, and a lot of them are on the street already.”
Rivera said he would support relocating the market, as long as vendors “don’t have to download an app to sell stuff or pay for their permits.”
“If they make it actually easier for these people, then I’m for it,” said Rivera. “Give them a booth. If they have a table, they can sell their stuff at a higher price, and the street won’t be clogged up for regular folks.”