October 18, 2017

Food vendors hit wall in fight for city permits
With reform bill on back burner, street vendors navigate black market
by Will Bredderman

Godshelter Oluwalogbon loves to talk about the Nigerian fare he hawks from a truck near his home
nation's embassy on Second Avenue—food that earned him top honors at last month's annual Vendy
Awards for street cuisine.
But ask how he got a permit allowing him to operate and he grows guarded.
"I'll just say that we had to partner with someone who was running his own business and couldn't do it
anymore," said the Brooklyn resident and father of three. "They wanted something new on their truck. So
they brought us on board."
That was in 2015, after Oluwalogbon and his wife, Bisola, spent two permitless years selling peppered
goat stew and traditional Yoruban efo riro out of their minivan, playing what he called hide-and-seek with
the authorities and, unfortunately, customers. Oluwalogbon's current arrangement, in which he pays a
large, undisclosed amount to the permit holder, is also verboten—but mostly ignored by the city.
It is a situation typical of local street vendors, who enter into costly black-market arrangements for access
to the limited number of licenses in circulation. The Department of Health has capped the number of
generic, year-round permits for carts and trucks at 2,800 since the Koch administration. Most of the
precious placards have remained in the same hands for decades because holders retain the right to
renew them every two years.
Many of these longtime licensees have organized into underground cartels, gouging aspiring
entrepreneurs such as Oluwalogbon with illegal rental fees more than 100 times greater than the $200 the
city charges.
Pimp my cart
Anton Yelyashkevich, the former operator of a Greenwich Village Russian dumpling cart, more openly
described his experiences in the illicit economy. When he went into business two years ago, a friend
connected him with someone the Belarusian immigrant described as a "pimp"—an operative who
brokered contracts between aspiring street vendors and city permit holders.
For $900 a month, Yelyashkevich obtained one of the 100 permits the city issues exclusively to disabled
veterans. But he was neither disabled nor a veteran, so every morning before dawn, one of his employees
headed to Central Park to rustle up an impaired former service member and persuade him to stand by the
cart all day in exchange for $150.
It was a shaky business model. Many of the former service members had substance-abuse issues, and
Yelyashkevich recalled that they often would drink alcohol and sometimes smoke crack in front of his cart.
After one veteran had a tryst with a prostitute in the company truck, the dumpling maker had enough. "I
was totally fed up," he said, "so I decided against working with them and to just run the risk of getting a
ticket."
In the summer of 2016 the city twice slapped Yelyashkevich with citations for not having a disabled
veteran on-site. It spiraled into a dispute with the "pimp," and Yelyashkevich lost access to the permit.
Thus ended his business.
The Street Vendor Project, which runs the Vendy Awards, has spent years advocating for reform that
would allow shopless merchants such as Yelyashkevich and Oluwalogbon to operate legitimately. It
achieved something of a breakthrough last year, when Upper Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine
introduced a bill to expand the number of permits and make other changes. But the legislation has made
little headway.
"To create a fairer city, we need opportunity for our small-business owners who struggle the most: street
vendors," said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project. The group held a march across the
Brooklyn Bridge late last month in support of the bill, which would establish an Office of Street Vendor
Enforcement staffed by agents trained exclusively to enforce it.
The bill, called the Street Vending Modernization Act, would double the number of available permits over
a seven-year period beginning next year, tighten some regulations on cart operators and establish a panel
to consider the repeal of others. It gathered some momentum initially but then hit stiff resistance from
brick-and-mortar store and restaurant owners in the outer boroughs and the associations, business
improvement districts (which are funded by property owners on commercial strips) and politicians that
represent them.
Those groups have long resented the carts, which they complain siphon off customers while avoiding rent,
insurance payments and responsibility for the upkeep of the districts in which they operate. Mayor Bill de
Blasio has expressed more empathy for traditional proprietors than for street vendors, and council
sources accused him of stonewalling and refusing to negotiate on the legislation.
Still, supporters of the measure said toughening its enforcement provisions, promising a dedicated
revenue stream to the oversight office and expanding areas of the city off-limits to carts could win over
private-sector skeptics. The backers even voiced optimism that it could pass before the end of this year.
"I think that the majority of my colleagues welcome the dual roles of getting the first real, consistent
enforcement in this sector and at the same time reining in the black market by slowly allowing people to
buy into legal permits," said Levine, the legislation's lead sponsor.
Its prospects, however, remain uncertain. While council members and consumers sympathize with the
mostly immigrant vendors, and the black market is a stain on city government, opponents of the bill—
particularly the business improvement districts—are politically stronger than the Street Vendor Project.
Levine is a contender to become City Council speaker and is not likely to push the controversial legislation
before that contest is decided later this year by a vote of his colleagues. And it is not clear how selling
more permits would curb, rather than expand, the black market. As an alternative, some have suggested
regulating vendors as the Parks Department does concessionaires or auctioning permits the way taxi
medallions were sold.
"It does remain a large, complicated piece of legislation," Levine said. "These kinds of packages take a
long time to work out."