Shut out of government relief, New York City street vendors ask for support

Over 10,000 New Yorkers make a living selling street food. More than half of them could be excluded from stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, and other forms of assistance.

New York City street vendors who spend five figures on black-market permits have run out of patience, eight months into the pandemic, while a bill that would help them languishes in City Council. So last Thursday, about 150 vendors and activists marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to downtown Manhattan to demand the passage of Intro 1116, a bill that would lift a 37-year-cap on the city’s 5,100 legal vendor permits. Even though the two-year-old relief bill is cosponsored by 29 of 51 city council members, Speaker Corey Johnson hasn’t brought it to vote, and his spokesperson had no comment about why that is.

The march was the latest move in a years-long battle between vendors, business groups, and the Mayor’s Office. “On behalf of myself, and all the vendors in New York City, I want the black market to end,” said Sabina Morales, through a Spanish translator. The 62-year-old Queens produce vendor says she pays $26,000 in annual fees to sub-lease two permits from their original owner; if she could buy a permit outright it would cost $200 every two years. “That’s a lot of money that’s being taken from me.”

Street vendors hold their carts and youth hold signs in downtown Manhattan. November 2020

Advocates say the bill is a crucial first step to help thousands of vendors avoid black-market fees and citations that can run up to $1,000, while supporting immigrant communities that rely on their affordable food.

Sam Bloch

Intro 1116 would increase by 400 the number of new permits issued annually, for the next decade, and would take enforcement out of the hands of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and create a special street vendor office. Opponents argue it would clog the streets and drain money from law-abiding businesses crushed by their own bills. Proponents say it is a crucial first step to help thousands of vendors avoid black-market fees and citations that can run up to $1,000, while supporting immigrant communities that rely on their affordable food.

“It would legalize the work, and save vendors from interacting with NYPD, and getting arrested and ticketed,” said Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group. More legal permits would also free sub-leasers like Morales from the high prices of the underground market, which “no one can afford under the current crisis.”

The number of vendor permits has stayed flat since 1983. Critics say that has forced vendors into “indentured servitude” by putting all of their proceeds towards paying off exorbitant sub-leases, rather than investing in their business. (Los Angeles, which recently started issuing permits for its 10,000 street food vendors, has no such cap.)

Street vendors march over Brooklyn Bridge into downtown Manhattan. November 2020

On November 12th, nearly 150 street vendors and activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to downtown Manhattan to demand the passage of Intro 1116, a bill that would lift a 37-year-cap on the city’s 5,100 legal vendor permits.

Sam Bloch

According to a city memo, there are currently 2,500 New Yorkers on a waiting list to secure their own permits, but Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, says vendors on that list are rarely called up. And as unpermitted vendors, they can’t qualify for the city’s small business loans and grants. She estimates that more than half of the city’s approximately 10,000 food vendors could be undocumented immigrants who are shut out of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and excluded from stimulus checks and unemployment insurance.

Kaufman-Gutierrez also charges that the City Council’s refusal to vote on Intro 1116, which was introduced in 2018, highlights the city’s hypocritical approach to business licensing, and creates an unfair double standard for vendors and brick-and-mortars during the pandemic.

“It would legalize the work, and save vendors from interacting with NYPD, and getting arrested and ticketed.”

Last month, the council passed a bill to extend Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Open Restaurants initiative, which grants no-fee permits for outdoor dining, for another year, with no cap on the number of establishments that can participate. While over 10,740 restaurants have expanded onto streets and sidewalks, thousands of vendors are still waiting for their own permits, even though they were there first.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, rejects the notion that restaurants, which have their own overhead costs, have had it easier than street vendors during the pandemic. Since March, restaurants have faced limits on hours and capacity, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has dispatched a task force to investigate violations and revoke liquor licenses.

Organizers carry Intro 1116 sign across the Brooklyn Bridge. November 2020

Intro 1116 would increase by 400 the number of new permits issued annually, for the next decade, and would take enforcement out of the hands of the New York Police Department and create a special street vendor office.

Sam Bloch

“The enforcement of restaurants has been very, very intense,” Rigie said. “I recognize that vendors are in a difficult position, too. But I’m not sure about comparing the two.”

Open Restaurants permits tables and chairs in the roadway, and near the curb, but Rigie said that most outdoor dining setups are against building facades, which should not conflict with mobile food vendors.

A protester holds

Sam Bloch

According to a city memo, there are currently 2,500 New Yorkers on a waiting list to secure their own permits.

Gladys Orduna, the general manager of Nuevo Mexico, a 50-seat Brooklyn restaurant, says her business is undercut by Tacos El Brother, a nearby truck that isn’t subject to pandemic-era regulations. She’d like to see the city delegate authority to a specific agency and better enforce vendor restrictions before releasing more permits.

“They’re still doing very well, compared to all the small businesses that are closing,” she said. “They don’t get affected by time limitations. They don’t have to worry about no capacity. It’s just not fair.”

The bills’ cosponsors disagree. “I was proud to vote for the bill in the City Council when we opened up the streets to the restaurants, and I was proud to vote for the bill where opened up the streets for retail,” said Brad Lander, a City Council member who represents several Brooklyn neighborhoods. “We must do now what we should have done so long ago: We must open up the streets for the street vendors.”

Just don’t expect it to happen soon. In a statement to The Counter, Jennifer Fermino, the City Council’s communications director, says the Speaker “will continue discussions” with the Mayor’s Office and advocates about the bill.

Sam Bloch is a staff 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.