Street vendors push for legitimacy

A City Council member is sponsoring a new bill that would lift the caps on permits for street vendors, who advocates say serve a vital and underrated function in New York City’s economy.

Vendors rallied in front of City Hall in the winter.
Vendors rallied in front of City Hall earlier this year.

Unlimited permits are only fair, they say, but others disagree

A citywide advocacy organization is pushing for a new bill that would lift the caps on permits for street vendors, allowing an unlimited number of vendors to sell their wares legally on the street. The proposal would effectively eliminate the current black market for permits, where vendors can pay more than 50 times the actual cost of a permit, and repeal caps set 36 years ago in 1979.

Storefront business owners have long argued that vendors create too much competition without the burden of paying rent, as well as clog and dirty the sidewalks in front of their stores. But many vendors and advocates see the cap as unfair and exploitive, since many in the vending community are immigrants serving customers in low-income communities that could use these goods and services – especially in a “food desert” like the South Bronx.

“We hope that with more permits, especially food permits, we can increase the food diversity in the city,” said Elise Goldin, the senior organizer of the Street Vendors Project. “The more permits are available, the more access to healthy food and diverse types of food can be permeated throughout all of New York City, but especially neighborhoods like Mott Haven.”

Señor Ramírez, who asked that his first name not be used, is an immigrant from Morelos, Mexico, who sells Italian icees from his small green cart on 138th Street. A Mott Haven local, he’s lived on 138th Street for eight years and gets the icees from a neighborhood factory, standing in front of the neighborhood schools every afternoon to sell the sugary delight to the kids. Yet he worries about being undocumented, about not having a vending permit, and about getting his cart taken away by police.

“If the ice cream trucks sees me, the police come,” Ramírez said. “Businesses want us out because we charge less.”

The current proposal is to create an unlimited number of vending permits (issued by the city’s Department of Business Services) and food licenses (issued by the Department of Health), effectively eliminating the underground black market. Currently, a permit for “rent” on the black market can fetch as much as $20,000 for two years. If purchased from the city, the permit costs $200.

But not all street vendors agree with the plan. Street vending mostly attracts immigrants since low English levels are not an obstacle, and since many immigrants have experience selling goods or making food. But US veterans are entitled to permits despite the caps.

“I am a veteran with a license,” said a man selling underwear on East 149th Street who refused to give his name. “We fought for this country. Why should other people get our benefits?”

Patricia Jimenez, a food vendor who sells fruits and vegetables out of a green cart on East 138th Street between Brook and St. Ann’s avenues, managed to get her permit six years ago and acknowledged that the system has changed since then. She said her two-year permit was $75 and every time she renews it costs $50. She makes about $500 – $600 every day and most of her customers are residents of Mott Haven.

She believes the community would benefit from having more vendors. “There would be more incentive to buy vegetables instead of junk,” she said, noting the proliferation of fast-food restaurants in the area.

Betsy Rivera, a local regular who bought tangerines from Jimenez’s food cart, agreed with Jimenez. “They’re good for the area. They even take food stamps,” she said.

Currently there are around 5,000 food vendor permits and 800 general merchandise permits for the entire city.

Goldin said she has been working with Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez of Washington Heights and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents Mott Haven. The office of Mark-Viverito did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Goldin also hopes a future bill will include comprehensive details as to exactly where street vendors can and cannot sell their goods. Currently, if vendors set up too close to a bus stop or a train station, they can be fined anywhere from $500 to $1,000. These boundaries, however, are not clearly marked, making it difficult for vendors to know when they are within a legal distance.

“I’ve been fined eight times,” Ramírez said. He said his first ticket was $350 and every time after that, they totaled $250 each. He pays the fines since the repercussion for not paying within the month is a new fine totaling $900. He makes a minimum of $80 a day and the maximum he ever earned was $200.

José Alvarez has been a street vendor for 60 years and sells “a little of everything” on the corner of East 149th Street. He admits that he had a license at one point, but gave up after it became too expensive.

“I’ve been fined a lot of times because they don’t want me on the corner,” said Alvarez. “They still bother you even if you have a license.”

Vincent Valentino, the executive director of the HUB and Third Avenue Business Improvement District, thinks there are enough food vendors on Third Avenue as it is. He observed that vendors in the neighborhood don’t obey the rules concerning their distance from crosswalks, doorways and train stations. He also noticed that fruit vendors “never take their garbage with them” and that their health standards are unenforced.

“There aren’t enough employees from health department to check them. Where do these food vendors wash their hands after they go to the bathroom?” Valentino asked.

Despite his reservations, Valentino does not fully oppose the vendors as long as they follow the rules.

“As long as they’re licensed and obey the rules and regulations of the city and the rules and regulations of Consumer Affairs and the Board of Health, I don’t have a problem,” Valentino said.

Alvarez said he’d be happy with any result, “If they just leave me alone.”

The story was updated on April 30.

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