After years of struggle, New York’s street food vendors win long-sought reforms

The city voted to issue 4,000 new permits over the next decade, among other changes. Advocates say it’s a pathway to financial relief and less police harassment.

Even before the pandemic, New York’s street food vendors often struggled to earn a living hawking hot food and water bottles to residents and tourists. Now, their advocates say, the only major American city with a hard cap on legal permits has extended a much-needed helping hand.

On Thursday, New York City Council voted 34 to 13 for a bill to lift a limit on full-time vending permits for the first time in nearly four decades. The bill, Intro 1116-B, authorizes the city to issue 4,000 new permits over the next decade, beginning in 2022. It’s a move that will help more of the city’s estimated 10,000 street food vendors go legal, and escape a vicious underground economy that can trap them in debt. The bill now goes to the desk of Mayor Bill De Blasio, who has indicated he will sign it into law.

Additionally, in response to criticism that street vendors are overpoliced, and subject to citations from myriad city agencies, the legislation creates a new Office of Street Vendor Enforcement that’s solely responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations. It will be overseen by an advisory board that comprises city officials, vendors, brick-and-mortar retailers, and property owners.

“We want to make sure that they’re not criminalized for honest work.”

“We want to make sure that they’re not criminalized for honest work,” said Jessica Ramos, a Democratic state senator who represents Queens, at a Wednesday press conference. “Everyone should be able to provide for themselves in this way if that is their choice.”

The bill is the culmination of years of efforts to reform New York’s uniquely punitive regulations. Virtually no other big city actively limits the number of street food permits, says Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin, Madison sociologist who studies informal food economies. The cap effectively makes street vending illegal for thousands of operators, and fuels a black market where two-year permits, originally purchased for $200, are leased for upwards of $25,000.

Kathleen Dunn, a Pasadena City College sociologist who studied New York’s street vendors, says the cap emerged from business complaints. In the late 1970s, as the city emerged from a fiscal crisis, business improvement districts and real estate corporations leaned on City Hall to clean up the streets. Former Mayor Ed Koch banned pushcarts from key Manhattan business corridors, conducted sidewalk sweeps, and in 1983 signed into the law the cap that still exists today.

The city’s health department has licensed roughly 19,000 people to handle street food, Dunn says, even though it’s capped the number of permits available for them to sell it.

(Besides the 3,100 full-time permits, the city also issues 1,000 for summer vending, and another 1,000 for fresh produce carts.)

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from entering the business, a rush that’s aided, paradoxically, by the city itself. The city’s health department has licensed roughly 19,000 people to handle street food, Dunn says, even though it’s capped the number of permits available for them to sell it. 

That’s left thousands of halal cooks, taqueros, and hawkers with an unenviable choice. To make a living, they have to risk the legal consequences of working without a permit—confiscation, $1,000 fines, or even arrest, in the infamous case of Brooklyn’s churro lady. Or they go underground, and illegally rent permits at exorbitant rates that drain their savings, and keep enterprising entrepreneurs, some looking to establish their own permanent restaurants, cart-bound.

“You’re kind of trapped between street crime and state violence,” Dunn said. “It’s almost like a worse version of the medallion system for taxis,” referring to the system that New York City uses to limit its supply of yellow cabs, and which is also corrupted by predatory lending. The new law aims to curb that black market by requiring new permit-holders to be physically present at their food cart or truck. It will retroactively apply to permits already issued beginning in 2032.

“The smallest businesses in New York City didn’t receive any support from the city.”

The bill had stalled since it was introduced in 2018, in part because of objections from restaurants and their allies on the City Council, who complain about unfair competition and uneven law enforcement. But the bill gained momentum during the coronavirus pandemic, fueled in part by the dire hardships the vendors have faced.

WIEGO, a global research firm that focuses on informal markets, found in a new report that last spring’s lockdowns decimated New York City’s street vendors. A survey of 62 vendors found that all of them stopped working completely last April, and by June, only 26 percent had gone back to work. Average daily earnings had fallen to $32, down from $115 earlier in the year. The dramatic loss was also problematic because they typically depend on higher earnings in the summer. 

And in many cases, the lost earnings weren’t replaced by government relief, due to their murky legal status; 26 percent of respondents were undocumented immigrants, and as such they weren’t eligible for stimulus funds. Additionally, street vendors were excluded from local, state, and national small business loans, said Mohamed Attia, director of the Street Vendor Project, which backed the bill. The new legislation could make them eligible for future relief, he said.

“The smallest businesses in New York City didn’t receive any support from the city,” Attia said on a Wednesday press call. “Street vendors didn’t get access to any of that. And that’s because of the system that exists right now. That’s because of the lack of permits.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.