OK folks, potentially huge and varied topic here … Oakland’s Informal Economy refers to a plethora of goods and services which officially do not exist, but which operate “under the plancha” – whether for tax purposes , simplicity’s sake, or other reasons. Never mind the potential size of such a sector, or its possible effects on the formal economy; some of us would just be interested to learn what sort of businesses this might include, since right up front we’d like to distinguish illegal activities (which might overlap a little with our area of inquiry, but are generally not the concern here), from extralegal. The latter mostly comprises endeavors that might be perfectly legal … if they were only legit. However, as this is a sensitive subject which is already necessarily difficult to research, for the moment, we’ll probably concentrate on what’s going on today (unless an expert on Oakland’s historical informal economy weighs in!).

gk asks: when does something become formal? when it’s a table at an event? a farmer’s market?

  • mike says: once it’s licensed and (especially) taxable, it’s formal … ¿no?
    • so a farmer’s market is licensed, right? so formal? a food truck that has a permit is formal? a ice cream truck that has a permit is formal? an ice cream pushcart is formal if it has a permit? How do we know? -gk
    • @GK: yes, permit = formal, not on this page. ... I agree with Mike -Julio
    • so flea markets or stands at flea markets?
      • This depends, because it’s sort of a special case. The organization providing the flea market facilities will be licensed, and when you go to sell, they’ll typically have you sign a disclaimer that you’re supposedly not a commercial vendor etc. In practice, however, this gets kinda bent once things get going.
      • In general, anything out in public that’s subject to random inspection by officials is always supposed to be licensed and legit.

What we’re aiming for might include (but not be limited to):

  • backyard restaurants
  • day laborers (the kind found on certain streetcorners or Home Depot parking lots)
  • slug lines” – informal car pools (if exchange of money is involved, say for gas)
  • what else? Some creative, lateral thinking is needed …
  • ice cream trucks and carts no, too public
  • corner fruit (or toilet paper) sellers
  • food vendors (think vegetables to dip in chile)
  • farmer’s market type vendors, including the vendors of arts and crafts that may or may not be at farmer’s markets. maybe just on a table or the sidewalk. way too out in the open to risk fines or arrest
  • street performers are supposed to have busker’s licenses (if they intend to solicit “donations”), but often don’t

Food Unestablishments

From danger dog carts to backyard taquerias, informal food vendors meet a need that Oakland has today for delicious, cheap, authentic (mostly Mexican) food. Full compliance with health and safety regulations adds considerable cost and complexity to an operation. In avoiding the regulations, although there is a loss in tax revenue for the city and state, these cash-only, extralegal joints lower their overhead the better to focus (at least in theory) on their goal of providing better food. Rather than cracking down on these enterprising families serving their community in otherwise underserved areas, many of them lacking official legal status, the authorities would do well to protect, encourage, and legitimize these activities under some uncomplicated sanction to foster the economic prosperity for the community that arises . The show will go on. (do the standard food trucks/roach coaches/taco trucks count? not the new wave of fancy ones, though maybe those, too? : No -JR)

Used Goods

Garage sales are a permanent fixture of American culture. Swap meets and flea markets abound in the East Bay. In the digital age, we have craigslist for all sort of informal sales of furniture, electronics, and a variety of other goods sold or traded between individuals.


  • garage sales
  • permanent garage sales - those houses that seem to have an infinite supply of garages to access
  • pulgas/flea markets (Laney, Coliseum, Ashby BART … whoops not Oakland)
  • swap meets

Social Activities