New York’s police will no longer crack down on street vendors–but who will?

The NYPD has long been accused of over-aggressive street vendor policing. Now city vendors are cautiously optimistic, though they fear what comes next.

It took Sonia Perez years to build up a rapport with the police officers who patrol her neighborhood. A street vendor who has sold tamales from a stand in Bushwick, Brooklyn for more than 15 years, she’s gotten several tickets for operating without a permit. The worst interaction happened three or four years ago, Perez recalled, on a day she was selling her tamales outside an empty storefront with the help of her oldest daughter. “She has tattoos and piercings, and [the police] told us that for all they knew, we had come from another state, that we probably sold drugs,” Perez said. “They told me that if I didn’t move [my stand], they’d give me a $50,000 ticket that I’d never be able to pay back in my life.”

Since then, Perez said, the police have mostly left her alone. Still, she’s seen officers “get really aggressive” with other vendors in her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. That may soon change. On June 7, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s police department would no longer be responsible for enforcing street vending violations. 

“Civilian agencies will move into the lead, de-escalating these interactions that overwhelmingly affect immigrants and people of color,” de Blasio tweeted. His announcement was otherwise light on specifics. It’s unclear which agency will handle enforcement going forward or whether the consequences for selling goods without a permit will remain the same. (The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

The number of food vendor permits is capped at just 5,100 and hasn’t changed since the 1980s.

This enforcement shift comes on the heels of more than two weeks of protests against police brutality and racist violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But even before the protests—and the coronavirus pandemic—police treatment of street vendors had become a flashpoint in New York. 

Vendors have long reported being harassed and intimidated by the New York Police Department, a problem that has been exacerbated by the force’s ever-increasing size and ballooning budget. Last year, after police officers were dispatched to the subway system to crack down on fare evasion, the NYPD came under fire for arresting vendors who sold goods underground as well. In one instance, a group of four officers arrested a well-known churro vendor at a Brooklyn subway station. “It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway stations,” one officer told a bystander who recorded the interaction, “and we warned her multiple times and she doesn’t want to give it up.” Less than a week later, officers arrested a second woman, also a churro vendor, at a different subway station.

The first woman—identified in the press only by her first name, “Elsa”—was also operating her food stand without a permit, and had reportedly been issued 10 summonses for doing so over the course of five months. But the city makes it nearly impossible for most vendors to operate legally. The number of food vendor permits, issued by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is capped at just 5,100. The limit hasn’t changed since the 1980s, and prospective vendors haven’t been able to add their names to the permit waitlist since 2007. Today, there are more than 20,000 vendors in the city, according to the Street Vendors Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for street vendors in New York City.

“These are hardworking members of our community whose … small businesses have been ravaged by Covid. They don’t get the help that they need.”

Perez, the tamal vendor, said she’s tried and failed to get permits in the past. “We’ve had a lot of community meetings with city council members and politicians to help get us more permits,” she said. Unable to get the paperwork she needs to legally operate her stand, Perez feels like she has no choice but to operate in a legal gray area. Her only other option— leasing a permit from someone else, a fairly common practice—is prohibitively expensive. Before the pandemic hit, Perez made about $200 a day in food sales; black market permits go for as much as $18,000, ninety times the cost of those issued by the city.

New York isn’t the only city where police departments have been tasked with vendor enforcement. Police officers in Washington, D.C., where licenses are also limited, have been known to arrest vendors and confiscate their food. In Los Angeles, which began requiring all street vendors to have new city-issued permits in January, local officials have asked the LAPD to crack down on unlicensed vendors. But as LAist reports, the city gave vendors only six months to comply with its new licensing regulations, a complicated process that has only become more fraught due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The pandemic hasn’t slowed enforcement in New York either, even though many vendors have temporarily opted to stop working. Just two and a half weeks before de Blasio announced that the NYPD would no longer issue summonses to vendors, officers ticketed three vendors in Jackson Heights, Queens. The vendors, all of whom are immigrants, continued working amid the pandemic. At least one vendor was undocumented and ineligible for federal relief due to their immigration status, according to the Jackson Heights Post. Though the city has offered some aid to immigrants without legal status through an Open Society Foundations grant, many immigrant New Yorkers haven’t received assistance at all. 

“Hopefully we can put the harassment of people making an honest living behind us.”

“These are hardworking members of our community whose … small businesses have been ravaged by Covid. They don’t get the help that they need,” said Catalina Cruz, a member of the New York State Assembly whose district includes Jackson Heights. Vendors who operated in less residential neighborhoods, such as Midtown and the Financial District, have been particularly devastated by the pandemic. With offices closed and subway ridership at historic lows, some vendors have opted to close up shop until the city begins reopening.

Still, vendors and their allies are cautiously optimistic about the newly announced changes. “Taking the NYPD out of the equation is a great step forward,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project. “But the process that currently exists for enforcing street vending is extremely unclear, and there’s so many different players: everyone from the Department of Health to the Department of Sanitation, FDNY, Environmental Control Board, the list is quite extensive.”

For street vendors and their advocates, streamlining enforcement is the beginning of a long-overdue process. Rather than have a spate of different city agencies oversee vendors, advocates want a single entity to distribute and enforce permits, a change that would make rules and enforcement guidelines easier to follow. But enforcement is just one aspect: Vendors say more work needs to be done, including lifting the cap on permits and providing financial assistance to vendors and other immigrants whose incomes have been affected by the pandemic. 

“Before, if we saw a police officer, we knew we were going to get a ticket. Now we don’t know who they’ll be, what they’ll look like, or how we’ll identify them.”

Two pieces of legislation, one at the state level and one introduced in the City Council last year, would address the licensing bottleneck. A second City Council bill seeks to waive all tickets issued to vendors since January 2020.

“Hopefully we can put the harassment of people making an honest living behind us,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, who introduced a bill that would prevent New York cities from regulating where vendors are able to operate. “The idea has always been to get vendors they need to best do their jobs and empower their entrepreneurship.”  As the state begins to re-open, Ramos hopes that vendors will be allowed to operate in more spaces instead of fewer. “As we start thinking about how we use our streets—I would say that there’s an intersection with our open streets movement—it will hopefully allow for us to use the grid smarter,” she said. “We have to remember that before [former mayor Rudy] Giuliani, the vendor carts used to be in the streets.”

Perez, who hasn’t worked since March, is eager to re-open her stand once she thinks it’s safe for her to do so. “My hope is that this all ends soon so I can get back into the rhythm and start working so I can pay my bills,” she said. She’s diabetic and worries she could get sick while working. And without a permit, she’s still worried about enforcement. “We’re waiting to see which agency is going to take over now that the cops no longer have the right to bother us. Before, if we saw a police officer, we knew we were going to get a ticket. Now we don’t know who they’ll be, what they’ll look like, or how we’ll identify them.”

Gaby Del Valle is a Brooklyn-based reporter focusing on immigration, labor, and inequality. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Politico Magazine, The Baffler, and other publications. She is the co-founder of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter about immigration policy.