Apr 7, 2022 - World

New York City street vendors fight to operate legally

A man wearing a dark yellow mask holds up a sign with pictures of tamales. The sign is in Spanish and says "let us work" and "peace." Two women also wearing masks stand to both of his sides.

Activists gather in support of street vendors in May 2021 in New York City. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

New York City street vendors, including many Latinos, are calling on officials to lift a cap on the permits they need to operate legally.

Driving the news: The city is home to up to 20,000 street vendors — many of whom are immigrants — who forced to work without permits or to pay exorbitant amounts to lease them because of the cap.

By the numbers: The city has made only 853 total licenses available for general merchandise.

  • Some 12,000 people are on a waitlist that has been closed for a decade, meaning there's virtually no way to get a new permit, according to researchers at the Community Service Society of New York. Military veterans are excluded.
  • New food vending permits are also capped and nearly impossible to get, street vendor advocates say.
  • Vendors pay anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000 every two years to lease a permit from someone who already has one, according to the Street Vendor Project, an organization that fights for vendor rights.
  • Others operate without a permit, risking $1,000 fines.

Flashback: New York began cracking down on street vendors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, placing caps on the number of licenses and permits.

  • The New York City Council last year passed major reforms, including the establishment of a civilian department to enforce street vending rules under the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. But critics say police are still doing some enforcement and that citations are back up following a pandemic lull.
  • The legislation also lifted the cap to about 4,000 additional food vendor permits that can be issued in batches of 400. General vendors were excluded.
  • Many restaurants and their supporters opposed the measure, arguing that increasing or lifting the cap on street vendor permits could hurt their businesses.

But, but, but: Advocates, including Street Vendor Project deputy director Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, say street vending creates a path toward entrepreneurship, especially for immigrants and people who can’t access capital to start their own businesses,

  • “You see a lot of really successful restaurants or biz that start out as vendors," Kaufman-Gutierrez said.
  • Street vending also provides flexibility for parents who can choose their own hours while shuttling kids around, Kaufman-Gutierrez said.

Watch to watch: A bill currently in the New York state legislature would eliminate the limits on permits and regulate the industry in cities of one million people.

  • Street vendor advocates hope the state budget includes measures supporting the expansion of the permit program. But the budget process has stalled, and it's unclear whether the measures will be included.

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