What to Know
Food truck workers squat on at least six public parking spaces along E Street SW outside NASA headquarters.
After lunch, truck operators move their food trucks from the metered parking spaces and replace them with other vehicles.
DCRA said the parking maneuvers are not violations of food truck regulations.
A group of food trucks have taken control of a set of highly desirable public metered parking spaces on a busy southwest Washington, D.C., street, causing conflict with neighboring businesses and raising questions about the effectiveness of D.C. parking laws.
A News4 I-Team investigation uncovered the operation and captured video of the food truck workers maneuvering vehicles to successfully squat on at least six public parking spaces along E Street SW outside the headquarters of NASA and several other smaller federal agencies. The stretch of road is not part of D.C.’s 10 officially designated food truck lottery zones, which were created five years ago to contain the spread of food trucks and provide lucrative curb sides to the popular mobile eateries.
“They’re basically playing a shell game,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who represents southwest D.C.
Allen said businesses along E Street SW have issued complaints to his office about the maneuvering of the food trucks and the loss of the metered parking spaces.
The I-Team review found the food truck operators work collaboratively and share a set of older cars. After the lunch hours are complete, operators move their food trucks from the metered parking spaces, but immediately move some of their fleet of shared cars into the spaces. Doing so blocks access to those spaces to others and allows the truck operators to squat on the spots around-the-clock and through the weekends.
Truck workers and neighboring businesses told the I-Team the food truck blockade of the parking spaces has continued for more than a year — without interruption. Truck workers said the cars parked overnight at the meters incur parking tickets, which they regularly pay as a cost of their business.
“It’s an open secret. We see these same exact cars every day,” said David Woo, manager of the Rise and Shine café, which occupies a ground-level storefront at the intersection of 3rd and E streets SW.
Woo said the food trucks have monopolized parking spaces and lured customers from at least three storefront restaurants nearby.
“We were solvent until the food trucks came and took all the (customers’) parking spots every day,” Woo said.
Records obtained from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs under the Freedom of Information Act show all of the trucks are legally registered in D.C., and many are allowed access to official food truck zones at least one day a week. The agency said the parking maneuvers are not violations of DCRA food truck regulations.
Multiple food truck operators, including Bassem Moussa, said the improvised maneuvering of trucks along E Street is necessary because of fast increasing competition for curb space among food trucks.
“There are a lot of trucks on the street,” Moussa said. “That’s why they have a problem with parking trucks.”
D.C. records show the number of food trucks has soared from approximately 115 trucks in 2013 to 450 in 2018. D.C.’s food truck zone lottery program, which divides 100 designated food truck parking spaces each month, is too small to afford zone spaces to all of the current operators.
Food truck operator Ben Rohani, who is among those squatting on the public spaces along E Street SW, said the lottery only provides him an official zone space elsewhere in D.C. once each week.
“It’s very difficult. We can’t be OK if we don’t have a spot. We can’t tell our employees, ‘OK, you don’t work today,’” Rohani said.
The I-Team’s review found potential loopholes in DC’s enforcement of the food trucks’ parking strategy. A Department of Public Workers parking meter officer said she was unable to ticket the food trucks along E Street SW because those trucks lacked traditional vehicle makes or model numbers, which are necessary for officers to issue tickets.
Council member Allen said he is drafting legislation to close that loophole. Allen said he is also proposing stiffer parking penalties for vehicles that regularly park illegally at a single parking meter.
“If you’re going to play this game and block up spaces, those parking tickets are going to escalate and you’re going to have to pay more,” he said.
Allen said the parking tickets along E Street SW cost $30 per violation. Allen said the food trucks are capitalizing on the price.
“It’s the cheapest rent in town,” he said.
The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said unpaid parking debts could “negatively impact” a food truck operator’s ability to participate in the food truck zone lottery and a renewal of his or her license.
“The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs vets every complaint,” a DCRA spokesman said. “Our goal is to continuously improve our procedures and ensure compliance from licensed vendors. We are working to enhance our multi-agency inspection process which will allow us to better ensure compliance among food trucks. We also are focused on ensuring that food trucks, restaurants and other businesses continue to coexist to offer goods and services to District residents and visitors.”
The association’s chairman said the organization is “100 percent concerned” about the food trucks that are squatting on public meter parking spaces in southwest D.C. He said the truck operators are “outliers who are not playing by the rules.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.