State Senator Jessica Ramos Wants To Lift Cap On Street Vending Permits For Food Carts
Legislation on the table in Albany seeks to lift limits on the number of sidewalk food vendors, a change that could dramatically alter New York City’s street food landscape and set up a battle with brick-and-mortar businesses and real estate interests.
Sponsored by state Senator Jessica Ramos, whose Queens district includes Jackson Heights, home to a significant number of immigrant food vendors, the legislation wades into a dicey and longstanding turf battle between the city’s street vendors, many of whom operate illegally, and brick-and-mortar businesses and property owners who view vendors as competition and a source of congestion.
Earlier this year, arguing that food vendors were sidewalk obstructions and pollution contributors, City Council member Peter Koo successfully pushed through a bill that banned all street vendors from a busy and gentrifying thoroughfare in Flushing.
Since the early 1980s, New York City has limited the number of sidewalk vending permits, resulting in roughly 5,100 vendors, according to the city’s Department of Health. Waiting lists for permits, which cost $200 and are valid for two years, are notoriously long, leaving many to try their luck without a license, leaving them vulnerable to fines. Others buy permits on the black market, in which those who have permits elect to resell them for as much as $25,000.
The Street Vendor Project, a group under the Urban Justice Center which fights for the rights of vendors, has estimated that are 20,000 vendors in the city, including those that sell non-food items like flowers and T-shirts.
Ramos’s bill would notably not apply to food trucks, which over the years have been the target of a separate crackdown. Also, under the plan, municipalities would determine which areas sidewalk vendors could operate. For example, cities and towns could ban vendors in exclusively residential neighborhoods.
“The idea is to decriminalize street vending and do away with caps so that every vendor goes through the appropriate inspections,” Ramos told Gothamist on Monday.
She said she was looking at the issue from both sides: those of her constituents who simply want to make a living selling food and the legal vendors and businesses who don’t want to see anyone skirting regulations.
Extrapolating from a survey of more than 200 vendors, the Institute for Justice report estimated that in 2012, 10,000 street vendors would have generated $71.2 million in local, state and federal taxes.
Pointing to the city’s skyrocketing commercial rents as one of the reasons street vendors have exploded in recent years, she said, “We want to protect that New York City inherent characteristic which is having an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Over the years, there have been attempts within the City Council to expand the number of food permits. In 2016, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced legislation that would have doubled the number of food vendor permits issued over a span of seven years, adding about 600 street vendors each year.
Although the bill seemed to be headed toward a vote, it stalled after facing opposition from business improvement districts and the real estate industry.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has previously expressed interest in resuscitating the City Council bill. Reached for comment on Ramos’s plan, a de Blasio spokesperson told Gothamist the mayor was “reviewing the legislation.”
Matthew Shapiro, a legal director with the Street Vendor Project, said Ramos’s bill represents the most aggressive action to date.
In 2015, the Street Vendor Project launched a campaign #LiftTheCaps to expand the number of permits to 25,000 for food.
“It’s about providing economic opportunities for our city’s smallest businesses and most vulnerable New Yorkers,” he said.
Shapiro said that Koo’s ban resulted in more than two dozen food vendors losing their location. Some of them, he said, had been operating for more than 20 years. He said that their own study has shown that food carts actually enhance sidewalks and the city’s economy, and argued that they don’t contribute to sidewalk congestion any more than people do.
Koo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Street vending has been a way to start a small business without the need for the capital to build a brick and mortar store,” Shapiro said. “The city and the state should be encouraging this.”
Huijin Wang, 60, who has run a food cart business with her husband in Flushing for more than 10 years, said in a phone interview that she could not understand why such a clampdown exists in a country that promotes economic opportunity. Because of the limit on permits, in order to run her cart, she is forced to buy one on the black market. She declined to state how much she paid. But the amount is high enough, she said, to force her and her husband to work long hours, seven days a week.
An immigrant from China, she said the street vendors often lack education and money.
“This new law would be of great help,” she said.