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An Outdated System Is Preventing Street Vendors From Getting Permits

Street vendors have been trying to get permits for decades, but an outdated system has kept them waiting indefinitely.

Sonia Peréz, a street food vendor from Bushwick, has to wake up at three in the morning to start preparing her Mexican breakfast staples, like tamales, champurrado, and arroz con leche. But her biggest stressor isn’t her unusual hours — it’s dealing with authorities. 

At any moment, she could be hit with a $1000 fine — more than a week of earnings — for lacking a permit that’s almost impossible to obtain. 

“The [authorities] know that the permits are not available,” she says. “So why do they keep targeting us?”

Since 1998, the 51-year-old has been trying to get a permit for the cart she pushes on the streets of New York City.  Peréz already has a mobile food vending license, which allows her to prepare and serve food, but she has not been able to obtain a mobile food vending unit permit for the cart itself. In New York City street vendors are required to have both to sell food on the streets, but the waiting list for the vending unit permits has been closed since 2007, and there has been a cap on the permits since the 1980’s. 

According to a report from the Street Vendor Project (SVP), a local advocacy project, there are around 20,000 people regularly selling merchandise, food, and art on city streets. The overwhelming majority are immigrants and people of color. Out of the survey group, 71% do not have permits and are at risk of getting fines, arrests and confiscation of their goods. 

The New York Police Department (NYPD) had oversight of the industry until January of 2021. The responsibilities to respond to health and permit violations were transferred to the civilian agency the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP). But SVP and vendors Documented spoke with say that the NYPD has still been writing tickets to vendors. 

How we covered it: Street Vendors Protest Exorbitant Fines as City Reopens

Food vending permits were limited to 3,100 full time permits citywide until last year, when the City Council passed legislation called Intro 1116 to add 4,000 new street vendor permits phased in over the next decade. 

But the celebration of its passing was short lived. Even if all of the new permits were issued today, the legislation would fall short in meeting the demand for mobile food vendor permits. There are around 6,000 people currently looking for a mobile food vending permit, a number that’s grown since the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, SVP’s deputy director.  And while Intro 1116 added more mobile food vendor permits, it failed to address the cap for merchandise licenses  — which stands at just 853 for non-veterans. 

That frustrates Norma, 37, a Mexican immigrant who has been selling flowers for four years in her neighborhood of Corona Plaza, Queens. She feels uncomfortable whenever the authorities arrive. “We don’t know if they will give us a ticket or if they will take away our merchandise,” she told Documented, adding that she feels the City has turned its back on her by not passing legislation that would lift the cap for general vendors. “We just want to work with dignity and be respected, because people think our jobs are less.” 

Vendors who sell without permits face $1,000 fines by the DWCP, which can quickly add up

Rosa Gallegos, 53, became a food vendor after the Mexican restaurant she had worked at for 15 years as a food preparer permanently closed during the pandemic. She knows she could be fined for working without a permit, but she takes the risk to support her children in her home country of El Salvador.

On Fordham Road in the Bronx, where she sells tacos and Salvadoran dishes like pupusas during the warm months, Gallegos said that she has seen other vendors get ticketed multiple times — and wishes authorities would have more empathy. 

“I get it. It’s their job. But I ask them if they have the heart to consider that giving $2,500 (in fines) to someone who makes at most $150 during a good day is inhumane,” she toid Documented. “We want the permits so that we can work legally. I pay my dues. I cooperate with Uncle Sam, so let us work.” 

These convictions don’t just hit street vendors’ finances, but create new barriers when they want to apply for other jobs, or have their immigration status processed. 

Also read: Street Vendors Celebrate Removal of NYPD From Enforcement

Kaufman-Gutierrez told Documented that the vast majority of vendors want to operate by the book. “There’s such a high demand (for permits), because people want to start their small business. They want to do things the right way. Nobody wants to go outside and work and know that you might have to close at any time of the day because you don’t have a permit. Nobody wants to work in fear and without stability,” she said.

At a rally, a street vendor pushes a cart full of tickets fined to street vendors.  Photo by Rommel H. Ojeda

A bill aims to lift the street vendor cap

Since last fall, advocates, allies and street vendors have held demonstrations across the city to pressure officials to pass new legislation, known as Senate Bill 1175B and Assembly Bill 5081B. The bills, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-13) and State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (AD-34) respectively, would provide more vending permits, expunge past vending-related records, and have a civilian agency to fully oversee the street vending industry. 

“Street vending is honest work, and formalizing this sector of the economy benefits all New Yorkers,” said a spokesperson for Ramos in an email. “Our ultimate goal is to give every New Yorker who has an entrepreneurial drive the opportunity to thrive, and our office is committed to continuing the fight for excluded workers.”

The legislation has support from city officials like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “I strongly supported the City Council’s work last year to lift the street vendor permit cap and establish a new Office of Street Vendor Enforcement, and now Albany needs to step up and pass S1175B so that our street vendors can work legally and without fear of overenforcement and debilitating fines,” Williams told Documented, calling vendors “an essential part of New York City’s economy and recovery.”

For Sonia Peréz, the Bushwick street vendor, the bills can’t pass soon enough. She’s tired of getting hassled by the DCWP and NYPD, and she needs her past citations expunged. She hopes lawmakers will see the reforms as win-win.  

“We are excluded, even though we are very important to the economy,” she said. Why can’t we meet in the middle? You need my job, and I need your support. Let’s work together.”

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