Street Vendors Out of Control, Says Flushing Council Member
Sandra Ung calls for a crackdown, as business owners complain enforcement has lapsed since the NYPD got sidelined. But immigrant sellers say they have few other options for survival.
Long-simmering tensions between Flushing’s vendors and its business owners intensified this week as City Councilmember Sandra Ung (D-Queens) last week called on city agencies to crack down on the area’s street sellers, who are ubiquitous in the neighborhood’s downtown despite a law banning them from working there.
“The lack of enforcement created a vacuum that only attracts more unlicensed vendors from across the city, and also creates a sense of lawlessness that attracts criminal elements,” Ung said, mentioning pickpockets and counterfeiters.
On Flushing’s Main Street, vendors line both sides of the bustling commercial strip with a kaleidoscope of items, from vegetables and packed lunches to tablets and winter socks.
Standing on Main alongside the City Council member, Ikhwan Rim, who owns a jewelry store on nearby Union Street, said curbside vendors put pressure on small businesses.
“We work nine, 10, 11 hours a day to make a living, but sometimes it’s just not helping when they’re selling the same items outside the stores or on the street,” Rim said.
Vendors who spoke to THE CITY in Mandarin, however, said obstacles to licensing, a lack of support from the city, and their lack of English fluency and capital have left them with few other options.
“I’m already 69 years old, what else can I rely on? Who’s going to hire me?” said Yongsheng Lai, who lost his herbal orthopedic clinic during the pandemic and is now selling antiques to support his sick and bedridden mother. “Look at me, I’m vending out here even as a doctor. This is all forced by life’s circumstances.”
He went on: “If I had money, of course I’d open up a storefront.”
‘A Double Standard’
A 2018 law introduced by then-Councilmember Peter Koo (D), now a senior advisor to the Adams administration, prohibits vending in most of downtown Flushing. (The legislation followed major real estate developments erected in the neighborhood in the 2010s and the widening of sidewalks along Main Street in 2017.)
Koo said he was busy and hung up the phone when THE CITY called to ask him about the implementation of his law. But Ung said efforts by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) to let curbside sellers know they are operating in a “no-vending zone” have been ineffective.
DCWP took over vendor enforcement in 2021, following a law passed by the City Council that created a new Office of Street Vendor Enforcement (OSVE). Months earlier, former Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed that shifting most enforcement away from the NYPD would reduce “interactions between uniform officers and New Yorkers, particularly immigrant communities and communities of color.”
In practice, however, vendors and advocates say the police department is often still actively involved, while promised efforts to help them find legal work opportunities haven’t materialized.
Meanwhile, local business owners say the 2018 law meant to crack down on street sellers isn’t being enforced, as responsibility has mostly shifted away from the police to civil enforcement.
According to a NYPD spokesperson, the department “maintains its authority to enforce all violations and will assist any agency,” even as “officers use a high level of discretion to resolve issues without the need for enforcement.”
DCWP spokesperson Michael Lanza said the OSVE “enlists support from NYPD in areas with significant and repeated noncompliance, including in locations where inspectors have been threatened with violence,” and that it “turns to stronger and scaled strategic enforcement tactics” in “problematic areas.”
But Dian Yu, executive director of the Flushing Business Improvement District, sees the vendors clogging the busy shopping areas despite the 2018 ban as a “double standard,” adding that they place an undue burden on tax- and rent-paying shop owners.
“We just don’t think that’s fair,” Yu said at Ung’s announcement of a petition calling for enforcement of vending rules. “We have to gain the sidewalk back.”
This proliferation of vendors, Ung added, has caused congestion and dumping in what she called “the third busiest intersection of the city” at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Here, she added, vendors have created “dangerous” conditions for disabled or elderly people to navigate the streets.
A petition written in English, Chinese and Korean that Ung introduced at Wednesday’s event calls on the city’s regulatory agencies to “remove the unlicensed street vendors from sidewalks,” saying that they endangered pedestrians, interfered with sanitation and were “unfair to the brick-and mortar business owners who have created the vibrant retail community in Flushing.”
About 400 individuals have signed the petition as of Friday afternoon, said Ung’s communication director, Shane Miller. He added that “there are a lot of petitions being circulated out in public right now” that hadn’t been tallied yet.
According to data provided to THE CITY by DCWP, the number of street vending inspections in Queens Community District 7, which includes Flushing, doubled to 1,162 in 2022 from 560 in 2021. The number of tickets issued by the department also inched up, to 86 from 77.
“Flushing is a vibrant and bustling area where there is a lot of competition for the sidewalk and unfortunately an area where we have seen significant and repeated noncompliance,” said Lanza, the DCWP spokesperson. “Despite efforts to encourage compliance in the area, some vendors have repeatedly refused to comply, so DCWP escalated its enforcement efforts to ensure compliance and best balance the needs of the community.”
An analysis of police data by THE CITY shows that the number of tickets issued by the NYPD to vendors citywide in 2022 grew by 86% from its pre-pandemic level, to 3,367. That’s up from the 1,812 in 2019 reported by City Limits.
Despite that uptick in enforcement, however, Ung said “it’s time for the city to get serious about the problem and enforce the law.” She was joined by local seniors and business owners at Wednesday’s announcement.
She added: “Let me be clear, our goal is not to prevent people from making a living or to provide for their families.”
But Mohamed Attia, managing director of the Street Vendor Project advocacy group, called that a “contradicting statement,” since enforcement inherently strips people of their living — sometimes even negatively impacting immigration proceedings of vendors, many of whom are not U.S. citizens.
“Enforcement is not gonna tell people, ‘OK, good job, you have a nice table, you’re not taking so much space on the sidewalk, we can let you work,’” Attia told THE CITY. “The enforcement literally shuts people down.”
In response to a question from THE CITY about opportunities for street vendors to legally conduct business, Ung said that she was speaking only for downtown Flushing and that “if other districts feel that they are able to have vendors out there, that’s fine.”
Asked a follow-up question about vendors specifically in Flushing, Ung said that she has “talked to them in the past to think about job force development programs.”
‘Not All Sunshine and Rainbows’
As Ung’s announcement wrapped up, several vendors gathered to discuss their reactions.
Amanda Ting told THE CITY in Mandarin that she turned to street vending after COVID forced her out of her restaurant gig, and other job prospects diminished during the city’s shutdown. Ting, 42, now sells hats and sunglasses and other accessories on Main Street several days a week — often netting less than $100 a day.
The streets were ghostly early on in the pandemic, she recalled, saying that vendors like herself helped fill the gaps as storefronts selling essential goods began to close their doors.
“We brought Flushing back to life and revitalized it. Why do you think there are so many people out here? It never used to be this way,” said Ting, who immigrated from China’s Fujian province about five years ago.
“It’s not easy for any of us, we’re all just doing this for a mouthful of rice,” Ting said. “Who doesn’t want to stay at home or sit in an office? We all do.”
Ting, who said her lack of English fluency makes it difficult to work outside of Chinese-speaking communities, added that she’d like to get a merchandise vendor license. But the 853 licenses the city issues to individuals who are not military veterans — a cap set in 1979 — have long since been distributed.
The city’s licensing site states that “DCWP’s waiting list for non-veteran applicants is currently closed” — and has been since it briefly reopened for one month in 2016 after a five-year hiatus, according to Attia of the Street Vendor Project. DCWP data via Open Data NYC shows 11,926 individuals on the waiting list.
Food vendors, while not subject to DCWP license caps, would still need one of 5,100 permits issued by the city health department (which has created a lucrative underground market for permits). The permitting process has been expensive and difficult for immigrant vendors to navigate, Attia said.
But even with a license, sellers like Ting would have to look outside of Flushing, as the 2018 law only allows “veterans with a service-related disability” to operate in the neighborhood, according to Lanza.
While Ting is still selling, she said Flushing’s restrictive vending regulations means there’s no licensed path for the hundred-plus sellers in her WeChat group working at these difficult and low-paying jobs. Most of them, she added, are Chinese immigrants and some of them are undocumented.
As to the ticketing agents, Ting said, “Whenever we find out that they’re at the top of the street, everyone starts packing up and running with their carts.”
She went on: “We’ve come to America to survive because we couldn’t in China. But as it turns out, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.”
Sixteen recommendations issued unanimously by the Street Vendor Advisory Board, appointed by the former administration, were supposed to help cut the red tape around vending and create opportunities for sellers like Ting.
But Attia, who’s one of the board’s 10 members, told THE CITY that the Adams administration has yet to fully implement any of the recommendations, which included a call to repeal criminal liability, and for “community vending marketplaces” where vendors would be allowed to gather and operate.
City Hall spokesperson Jonah Allon said the Adams administration “has numerous reform efforts underway” based on the board’s recommendation, and that it is working “to drive these recommendations forward.”
“We are committed to adopting thoughtful rules that balance the needs of these vendors, brick-and-mortar businesses, and residents, while ensuring public safety is at the core of our regulatory landscape,” he added.
Ting said she’d like to at least see a home base established for vendors, even if it charged a small fee for rent.
“At least give us something. You can’t just say, ‘you can’t sell here, you can’t sell there,’” Ting said. “At least give us a space for survival. The way things are now, there’s nothing for us. All day long, we’re like mice hiding from cats.”
Since 2021, DCWP’s Office of Street Vendor Enforcement “has replaced NYPD as the primary enforcement agency,” with the police department taking a secondary role and handling “counterfeiting and other criminal conduct,” according to a city report. (The city departments of Health, Parks, and Sanitation all also issue tickets).
Ung, however, said that there’s “no true enforcement” with the OSVE because, unlike with the NYPD, “there’s no need to give them an ID, there’s no need to know who you are.”
Despite the enforcement shift, Lai, the antiques seller, said that NYPD officers often accompany OSVE inspectors in their weekly sweeps.
“The last mayor said the NYPD couldn’t regulate vendors, and that’s why we came out for business,” Lai told THE CITY in Mandarin. “And now they’re out here regulating. And to regulate — you’ve got to give us a reason.”
While Attia commended the initial enforcement shift away from the NYPD, he said that the creation of the OSVE did not stop the police from “targeting … immigrant-populated neighborhoods.”
“The PD, by nature, should have no business in street vending oversight,” Attia told THE CITY. “I’ve never seen a cop walking into a restaurant, writing a worker or an owner or a manager a ticket. So why is the police getting involved with street vendors? Nobody could explain that.”