“So how long have you been here in the U.S.?” I asked, striking up a conversation with a food vendor during a lunch run.
“Ten years – I started off as an assistant professor in engineering,” he said, “But then I bought this license. How much do you think it cost?” he said, mentioning in passing that there was a better livelihood to be made by him in street vending than as an academic.
“A few thousand dollars?” I guessed.
No doubt New York City’s current street vending regulations are broken. The number of permits for street vendors hasn’t changed since 1981: 3,000 year-round food truck permits, 853 general merchandise permits and 1,000 seasonal permits. But the demand is much greater, which has led to the creation of a black market for street vendor permits with the $200 permits selling for upwards of $20,000, according to the Street Vendor Project. And in the case of this particular food vendor in a well-trafficked area, prices soar even higher. Original permit holders can live in far off places, across the U.S. or abroad.
The City Council has proposed a package of bills to address the problem. The legislation aims to address many complaints by doubling the current cap on food permits to create more street vending opportunities; by creating an Office of Street Vendor Enforcement and a Street Vendor Advisory Board to move away from uneven, unfair and unpredictable enforcement; and by clarifying some of the existing laws that govern vendor placement.
This package of reforms can go a long way to improve conditions for street vendors, but there are still important challenges to be addressed. Will 600 additional permits be enough to curb the black market? Care should be taken so that there isn’t simply an increase in ticketing and arrests of vendors striving to earn their living. Vendors are already saddled with thousands of dollars in fines each year, often handed out arbitrarily. Vendors are primarily low-income new immigrants and people of color who work long hours under harsh conditions while striving to make it in New York City. In the Third Regional Plan, RPA acknowledged this important bridge for new immigrants who are a source of vibrancy for the city’s social and economic fabric, and called for the strengthening of institutional supports for immigrants, and the recognition and development of the informal sector of the economy, including street vending.
Concerns about street vending shouldn’t be dismissed. Residents and businesses in busy thoroughfares have voiced concerns about litter and congestion on sidewalks, inadequate enforcement of existing street vendor regulations, competition with small mom-and-pop retail stores who pay increasing rents. Some also cite tax avoidance by vendors. There also is the question whether existing laws are being enforced. The package of legislation strives to address these concerns in several ways, including improved enforcement by dedicated enforcement officials, beginning with congested areas, and use of more modern technology to improve transparency.
But as New York City continues to grow there will need to be a broader conversation about what belongs where and when, and how personal cars, buses, taxis, trucks, bikes and pedestrians share space. In an increasingly crowded and expensive city, vendors provide affordable options for New Yorkers, while making our streets more vibrant.
Photo: Andy Cross