Street Food Vendors in Peril Ask New York City to Cut Red Tape

New York City’s roughly 20,000 street food vendors are in a crisis like they’ve never seen before, crippled by a pandemic that compounded perennial challenges such as ticketing and over-policing for the majority that operate without proper permits. 

There’s a relatively easy fix to that problem, advocates say: lifting a 37-year-old cap that limits mobile food vending licenses toabout 2,900 citywide and forces many to turn to an underground market for permits.

On Nov. 12, vendors marched with their carts across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in a protest, demanding that city lawmakers pass Intro 1116, a2018 bill that would gradually increase the number of available permits over the next decade. It would help decriminalize a profession that is largely held by immigrants, and make thousands eligible for financial assistance in critical times such as the Covid-19 crisis.

For Sonia Perez, getting access to relief aid would be invaluable. Perez, a Mexican native who makes a living by preparing and selling tamales, has been hit twice as hard by the health crisis. She lost her husband to the disease and has seen half of her daily income vanish, even after raising the price of her tamales from $2 to $3 to help cover an increase in ingredient costs. 

As an undocumented immigrant, she was ineligible for a federal stimulus check or unemployment benefits. She’s relying on food pantries to get by.

“It has affected me a lot because I haven’t been able to pay the rent,’’ said Perez, speaking in Spanish in an interview at the rally. “Sometimes we can’t get food because there are too many people in line. And well, it’s hard.”

Helping street and sidewalk vendors stay afloat during the pandemic might restore a sense of normalcy in New York City at a time when so manybeloved local establishments are shutting down. By one estimate, street vendors contributed almost $300 million to the local economy back in 2012, a number that has likely increased since.

And yet despite being co-sponsored by a majority of the 51 New York Citycouncil members, the vendor-reform bill hasn’t been brought to vote, and it’s unclear when it might be.

SpeakerCorey Johnson is aware of the importance of street vendors to the economy, a spokesperson for the city council said by email: “At a time when we are facing a dire economic crisis, street vendors offer affordable food options for New Yorkers, and the jobs they provide are a lifeline for immigrants New Yorkers. He is working towards finding ways to help this vital industry.”

Year-round citywide permits cost $200 for two years, and the city also issues about 2,000 licenses that areseasonal or specific, such as for fresh fruits and vegetables only. But that’s not enough, and some vendors have opted to rent permits in the black market — where they can fetch more than a hundred times their price. 

Mahmoud Aldeen, who runs the Terry & Yaki food cart in Long Island City, said he pays $22,000 every two years for his permit rental.

“If I didn’t have to pay for that permit, all of that money would be for me,” he said. “It’d definitely be a big help.”

Outside of the $1,200 stimulus check, Aldeen has received no additional government support.

Intro 1116 would also create an independent, civilian enforcement agency for street vending, addressing criticism by vendors and their advocates of over-policing and citations by law officials including the New York Police Department. (Aldeen said that the NYPD has forced him out of legal spaces on several occasions, ticketing him as much as $1,000. )

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat,announced that the NYPD would no longer be responsible for vendor enforcement. The NYPD said that it has disbanded its Peddler Task Force, but “will continue to respond to 311 service requests and 911 calls related to vendors” until a full transition to civilian agencies occurs.

Illegal sidewalk vending of products ranging from fruits and vegetables to clothing and personal protective equipment has beenblasted by some retailers, supermarkets and commercial centers that see it as unfair competition.

The Street Vendor Project — part of the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation and advocacy to various marginalized New Yorkers — says food carts are a vital part of the city. 

“We face a lot of lobbying from the real estate industry, some business-improvement districts who say that street vendors cause overcrowding,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director at theStreet Vendor Project.  “Or they use veiled language that is inherently racist, to say that vendors make the streets dirty rather than emphasizing how important it is to create a system that embraces street vending and brings vendors into the formalized economy for the benefit of the city.”

The nonprofit and private sectors have stepped in to fill the void of government assistance for the estimated three-quarters of vendors who were excluded from disaster help because of their immigration status or lack of a proper license. Morgan Stanley said this week it is giving $2 million to 2,000 vendors in coordination with the Robin Hood foundation, which is contributing $375,000 more and helping distribute the cash.

One company found a creative way around the lack of individual permits. Zevv, which builds clean-energy custom food trucks and carts, has secured permits for authorized zones where its clients can park and legally sell their fare. Those permits are for restricted areas on private properties — say near a hospital, for instance.

“We’re trying to help vendors get some form of stability and pair them with a landlord who’s willing to work with them,” said Max Crespo, founder of Zevv.

Zevv’s solution isn’t for everyone, however. Restricted areas aren’t always in prime locations, some vendors say, leaving them with few options if foot traffic isn’t high.

Other cities have taken action to decriminalize their street vending, including Los Angeles, whichmade it legal to sell food and other items on the sidewalks about two years ago and set up a permit system. According to the mayor’s office, about 870  street vendors have received permits as of mid-November, a number that doesn’t include those who have started the process. 

Los Angeles also established a Covid relief fund for permitted vendors and those who have applied for a license — regardless of their immigration status.

New York State SenatorJessica Ramos wants New York City vendors to get aid, too. Ramos, a Democrat, marched in solidarity with them in November. 

“They’re people who haven’t received any economic relief during this pandemic,” she said. “They work very hard every day.”


— With assistance by Henry Goldman, and Jacqueline Davalos

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