The Institute for Justice recently published a report regarding Houston’s prohibitive regulation of small businesses and open-air vendors. The report commends Houston for its historically pro-business practices, but questions recent legislation passed under the guise of “beautification.”

In the last five years, street vending and taco trucks have suffered progressively harsh regulation, made possible by three recent bills passed by the Texas Legislature that were bracketed to apply only to Houston. Street vending is now banned on public property in Houston except in a small pocket of downtown-an area in which, coincidentally, it is virtually impossible to receive a permit for street vending. Operating without a permit is a criminal misdemeanor.

Food trucks-in Houston, generally taco trucks-have also been harshly regulated in recent years, suffering stricter “health and safety” and “beautification” restrictions than many brick-and-mortar restaurants. For example, the requirement that trucks be packed up and driven to one of just a few city-operated waste stations once per day should be amended. Like brick-and-mortar stores, food trucks could cheaply contract with waste trucks to come and collect their waste.

The report also criticizes confusing and unnecessary regulation of store advertisements. Under the guise of “beautification,” the minutiae of business management is controlled down to details like what proportion of a storefront may be covered in papered advertisements. After Houston’s ban on inflatable advertisements was held to violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, Houston retaliated by banning “attention-getting devices” in an intentionally broad sense, regardless of whether they are used for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Finally, the report states that Project SafeClear, which divided Houston’s freeways and auctioned the rights to operate section-by-section, has created a virtual monopolistic trust comprising just 11 tow companies. After Houston’s price controls and insurance requirements were enacted, Houston lost 500 tow trucks in just a single year, and many smaller tow companies have been unable to compete.

IJ offer various recommendations as alternatives to Houston’s current anti-business and anti-competitive regulations:

– Houston should change regulation of food trucks to be less onerous. – The Texas Legislature should repeal various mobile food truck laws allowing criminal penalties that crafted so as to only apply to Houston and no other Texas cities.- Houston should streamline the application process and decrease restrictions for business signage and advertisements.

– A. J. SmullenIntern, Center for Effective Justice