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May 29, 2015

City Council is cooking up some relief for street vendors
Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and several of her council colleagues are working
on legislation that would essentially decriminalize food-cart and merchandise
By Erik Engquist

Life has been getting tougher for street vendors, according to advocates who say the entrepreneurs selling
from carts and trucks are at the mercy of city inspectors and an increasingly punishing black market.
But the vendors have been courting allies in the City Council, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who
are discussing bills that would make their livelihoods easier, if not revolutionize them. Talks are continuing
about what exactly the reforms will be, but they will certainly take aim at the city’s permit and license caps and
at rules about how close vendors can be to retail stores.
The black market exists because the city has limited the number of vending permits and licenses for more than
30 years and allows holders to renew them every two years, so long as they do so in person. The holders, who
originally bought two-year permits and licenses for $75 to $200, illegally rent them out for $18,000 to $25,000
to vendors who then masquerade as independent contractors.
Permit and license holders have been known to reside in such far-flung locales as Florida and Pakistan,
returning to New York City every two years to renew their precious documents. The immigrant entrepreneurs
who pay them, meanwhile, stake out corners in places like Inwood and Jackson Heights, hustling for
customers and fending off city inspectors and police. An attempted crackdown on the black market by city
officials has backfired, advocates say, because vendors—rather than permit holders—almost always end up
paying the fines, which can be $500 or even $1,000.
Insiders say the council will attempt to alleviate permit-holders’ stranglehold on the food-vending market by
raising or eliminating the cap, which has not increased since 1981. The cap on licenses, which allow for the
sale of merchandise, is also being targeted. Another bill will address the city rule that forbids vendors from
operating within 20 feet of a store, a policy that makes many sidewalks effectively off-limits to vendors and
results in numerous fines.
The package of legislation, which could be introduced this summer, will be touted as also beneficial to
residents and retailers, who often lament the presence of vendors in their midst. But the bills' general thrust will
be to decriminalize street vending, a longtime goal of advocacy groups including the Street Vendor Project.
The council's Consumer Affairs Committee will be the battleground for the bills, which could draw opposition
from chambers of commerce and business improvement districts, including one business leader who has been
campaigning for more attractive and less obstructive food carts.
Vendors’ supporters in the council haven’t decided which legislation will be carried by which members, but
sponsors could include Consumer Affairs Chairman Rafael Espinal, Finance Chairwoman Julissa Ferreras and
Transportation Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez previously pushed the city to create a plaza for
vendors and pedestrians on 175th Street in Washington Heights. Construction is now underway.