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Street Food Vendor Permits to Expand by Thousands as Council Readies Vote

SHARE Street Food Vendor Permits to Expand by Thousands as Council Readies Vote

Street vendors sell produce in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Oct. 7, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

After a two-year wait, the City Council is expected to soon pass a fiercely debated bill that would more than double the number of street vendor permits over a decade.

The measure would create 4,000 new sidewalk and street food-selling permits by 2032, in addition to 3,000 currently issued by the city’s health department. 

While would-be vendors hope to move off a years-long waiting list, struggling restaurant owners say the change would further undercut their pandemic-slammed businesses.

The latest version of the bill aims to end widespread subletting of scarce permits at sharply inflated prices by requiring that all new permits be held by someone present and working in the cart or truck. Existing permits must transition over to that new system within 10 years.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin visits a Lower East Side food pantry, Aug. 20, 2020.

Jeff Reed/New York City Council

The bill’s lead sponsor, Councilmember Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), said the legislation has momentum, fueled in part by the dire hardship vendors have experienced during the COVID-19 crisis. Many are undocumented immigrants, disqualified from official aid programs.

“During the whole pandemic they didn’t get any support from the state, city, federal government,” Chin said. “They are part of our economy and they need to support their families. They are hardworking people.”

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he supports the measure, calling it “something I’ve wanted to see for a long time...a balanced plan to support street vendors but with clear ground rules, strong enforcement and clear accommodation for bricks-and-mortar small businesses.”

He added: “I’m certainly aware that small businesses have gone through hell and we need to protect them at this moment. I think this legislation as I’ve seen it so far has been written in a way that does that.”

‘Finally Moving Forward’

The bill would lift the city’s cap on permits for the first time in nearly 40 years. It would also create a new enforcement office, following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision last year to end NYPD purview over vending violations.

A vote by the consumer affairs committee is expected to be followed by a vote of the full Council at its Jan. 28 meeting, said Kana Ervin, a spokesperson for Chin.

When the Council held a hearing on an earlier version of the bill in 2019, restaurant and grocery store owners joined leaders of business improvement district groups to testify in opposition. They argued that vendors were held to different standards than their business, and that enforcement of vending regulations was inconsistent. 

The bill now counts 30 sponsors in the Council, including Speaker Corey Johnson. 

“We’ve had an economically punishing black market operating in plain sight for decades because the issue seemed too tough to tackle,” Johnson said in a statement. 

“When done right, vending enlivens our streets and provides opportunity to an often neglected workforce,” he added. “Those are two things we need right now, and I’m proud we’re finally moving forward. I can’t wait to vote aye.”

‘A True Part of the City’

Vendors who lack permits told THE CITY that they wish to sell food legally, but are left with no option but to work without official approvals. 

Sonia Perez, a 50-year-old vendor who lives and works in Bushwick, sells tamales and hot drinks out of a shopping cart on Knickerbocker Avenue. She’s been a street vendor for 20 years — 13 of those spent on the waiting list. 

She said she longs to “work legally and also be considered as a true part of the city.” 

Perez, who is originally from Mexico, added: “Street vendors are looking to work with dignity, bettering their families so their families can eat.” 

Bushwick street vendor Sonia Perez

Courtesy of the Street Vendor Project

Over the years, she’s received summonses from various city agencies for not having a permit  — fines of up to $1,000 issued by the city Department of Health and other penalties up to $500 from the NYPD. Vendors can also be penalized for operating too close to crosswalks or other forbidden locations. 

The Street Vendor Project had advocated for the cap on the number of permits to be eliminated. Still, the organization’s director, Mohamed Attia, called the bill an improvement over the current “broken and outdated” system.

“By 2032, we can say that there will be no underground market,” Attia said. 

With second-hand two-year permits now running as much as $25,000, the new, vendor-held permits will remove a costly barrier to enter the business.

“It’s not as challenging to come up for the money for the cart as getting the permit,” he said. “The permit is the huge issue.” 

Far Apart on Distancing

Left unaddressed in the latest tweaks are warnings from brick-and-mortar businesses that vendors’ gain will be their loss at a time when they’re also scrambling to survive amid restrictions barring indoor dining.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants and nightlife venues, said that the bill “falls short of the comprehensive overhaul we need.” 

One sore point: though a new advisory board would evaluate all vending rules, for now the Council leaves untouched one that allows vendors to sell just 20 feet away from a building entrance or exit.

“The distance requirement from which a vendor may sell food in front of a restaurant should be extended,” Rigie said. He added that dedicated funding for enforcement would also be needed. 

A food cart worker prepares food for customers in Lower Manhattan, Dec. 2, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Restaurant owners told THE CITY that with their margins leaner than ever, they cannot afford to be undercut by competition.

Sandra Jaquez, who owns Il Sole and Sa’tacos in Inwood, said that having vendors down the block selling the same type of food as her restaurants represents a bigger threat than neighboring restaurants serving other cuisines.

“I have to pay employees, pay rent, pay the light, pay water. All these bills and utilities that a street vendor doesn’t. Their overhead is completely less than mine,” said Jaquez, who lives in New Jersey. “I understand everyone needs to make a living, but with this bill, this is something that will affect me tremendously.”

Jaquez said she owes more than $100,000 in back rent across her two restaurants and has stayed afloat only after receiving a Paycheck Protection Plan loan last year. 

‘The Right Time’

Owners of grocery stores, including Gristedes and Morton Williams Supermarkets, contend vendors are “costing the city millions of dollars while siphoning off millions from brick-and-mortar businesses,” said industry spokesperson and lobbyist Richard Lipsky. 

Lipsky said that the bill needs additional provisions, such as a system to better track violations that would flag repeat violators of city regulations.

Chin and Attia maintain that enough concessions have been made to appease opponents and that vendors deserve a boost. 

“We have seen how the disparities within the resources that vendors receive versus other businesses have shown how broken the system is,” Attia said. “Now is the right time to do it, to lift the cap, increase the number of permits and create opportunities for the vendors to thrive and survive.” 

(With interpretation by Liliana Gutierrez)

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