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City Late on Push to Expand Legal Food Cart Offerings With More Licenses

Hundreds of new vendor permits per year were supposed to be available starting July 1, but the details of the new process are still simmering with the Department of Health.

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Early-morning workers buy breakfast at a food cart on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, March 18, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

The city is weeks late to opening up thousands of new street vendor permits — while outdoor sellers and their advocates say a brand new process, which was supposed to be more inclusive, will actually drive vendors to the black market.

The new permit application was set to open up July 1, per “historic” City Council legislation that passed with fanfare in early 2021. The law aims to expand the number of full-time legal street vendors in the city for the first time in nearly 40 years, by making hundreds of new permits available each year for the next 10 years.  

But nearly two weeks past the deadline, the system is still not set up — in part thanks to a delayed public hearing on the new rules held just the day before the deadline.

“The Department is reviewing the comments and working to finalize the rule,” wrote Michael Lanza, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees food cart licensing.

The number of mobile food vending licenses are currently capped at 5,100: That includes 2,800 full-time citywide permits — which have not changed since 1983 — 100 permits for veterans and people with disabilities, 200 borough-specific permits, 1,000 seasonal permits, and 1,000 fruit-and-vegetable-only permits. 

In this city of nearly 9 million people, those numbers are far lower than the demand, which has created an underground market system where vendors often pay thousands of dollars a year to lease existing permits.

The legislation called for 445 food vending permits to be released each year for 10 years, more than doubling the total by the next decade. 

The new batch of permits are separated into city-wide and non-Manhattan permits — with 300 going to the outer boroughs and 45 to disabled veterans annually. The 200 borough-specific permits under current regulations would remain. It’s generally presumed that nearly anyone who gets a city-wide permit will set up shop in Manhattan.

Pushed Out

Other changes include requiring the permit holder to always be present at the cart, an effort to eliminate the black market of selling or leasing existing permits at exorbitant prices.

The new law also transferred enforcement of street vending rules away from the NYPD and to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection — although the agency does work with the police, according to a spokesperson.

“Vending is a complicated issue that touches us all — from the vendors themselves to local businesses to residents and visitors,” the spokesperson, Abigail Lootens, said in a statement. “In an effort to strike an equitable balance of sidewalk usage, DCWP does, at times, enlist support from NYPD in areas with significant and repeated noncompliance, including in locations where inspectors have been threatened with violence

But at a health department hearing on June 30, several vendors expressed concern with the new changes, including separate waiting lists for the outer-borogh permits — and feared even if they received a permit, the new system might not allow them to remain in their current location.

A street vendor sells food at Herald Square, July 13, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I do not have a permit of my own and had been renting one until the pandemic happened,”  Samya Eskandar, who has been vending for 15 years, said in testimony during the hearing. She said the cost to rent her permit increased during the pandemic — and she doesn’t want to risk losing his customers at her current location.

“I have been working in Manhattan for most of my time as a vendor and do not want to relocate elsewhere,” she said.

The new rule will call names off the waitlist with the first 100 people chosen receiving citywide permits.

Advocates and vendors are calling on separate wait lists so people have the chance to stay where they’ve been. They’re also denouncing the fact that only people on the waitlist prior to a March 1, 2017 cut-off date are allowed to get permits — meaning newer vendors, notably anyone who turned to street cart sales in the pandemic, may still use the black market.

“It would be unfair for me to be denied this opportunity to be on the waiting list to hopefully have my own supervisory license one day,” Sarai Rodriguez, who operates a taco cart on 31st and Sixth Avenue but missed the cut-off date, said at the hearing.

Executive Action

Mohamed Attia, director of advocacy group Street Vendor Project, told THE CITY that he believes the DOHMH’s interpretation of the new law will perpetuate the exploitative re-sell market

“That puts a lot of people who are on the waitlist for a citywide permit in a very difficult position — especially those who run a business in Manhattan and have been dealing with the underground market and paying under the table,” he told THE CITY. 

“Now these people might just be in a spot where they are offered to take an outer borough permit or none and just lose their chance to operate in a lawful way,” Attia added.

In May, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a series of recommendations from an advisory board to further modernize the street vendor permitting process — with the goal of creating even more legal opportunities for vendors across the city. 

“Together, we can balance the needs of street vendors, brick-and-mortar businesses, and residents,” he said at the time. 

The recommendations, which the mayor’s office said they began implementing in May, includes “repealing the criminal liability for general and mobile food vendors” and ordering the Department of Transportation to identify new locations around the city for vendors to set up, including pedestrian plazas and metered parking spots. 

But some street-food sellers fear they’ll have to choose between vending with their own legal permit or losing their prime spot. 

Sherif Baioumy said he began vending in 2004 and has been on the waiting list for a permit in his own name since 2007, when spots opened up. But he worries he won’t receive a license to sell in Manhattan.

“It’s unfair that after waiting all this time and having the customers this long, I would get an outer-borough permit,” he said at the June 30 hearing.

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