NYC councilmembers look to lift decades-old cap on street vendor permits

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By Dan Sears

Members of the New York City Council will introduce a set of four bills Wednesday afternoon to overhaul the city’s longstanding street vending rules and bring more off-the-books merchants into good standing under the law — keeping them from risking hefty fines, fees and jail time.

The most sweeping change would remove a decades-old cap on the city’s highly coveted and restricted vendor permits and licenses — a measure that has never been proposed before. Vendors and supporters have long sought the reform, and say that the limit forces many vendors to operate illegally.

“We need to have a way to bring people out to the light from the shadows,” said Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, who is sponsoring the bill with Councilmember Amanda Farías, a fellow Bronx Democrat.

Sanchez said the measure is personal for her — her father and grandfather were vendors in the Bronx, and her uncles and cousins have been cleared out by police as unlicensed vendors on Fordham Road, a major street in the borough.

The councilmembers and other advocates said if more vendors are operating legally, customers can feel more secure that they’re being regulated — such as in the case of food vendors, who post their permits and health inspection letter grades.

They said the need for reform is especially urgent given that the number of street vendors — which estimates from a study by the nonprofit Street Vendor Project that was conducted about a decade ago put at about 20,000 — grew during the pandemic and continues to rise as new migrants flock to the city. Most of those vendors are operating without the required permits and licenses, according to the Street Vendor Project.

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Brick-and-mortar business owners have long criticized attempts to ease the city’s vending rules, arguing that more vendors and lax laws will lead to more competition, congested sidewalks and dirty conditions — and claim that the existing vending rules aren’t sufficiently enforced.

But vendor advocates said the city’s many other safety and sanitation rules remain in effect to prevent trash pile-ups and overcrowding.

The councilmembers’ measure would gradually expand the number of licenses and permits available over five years, before removing the limit altogether. A preliminary report from the Independent Budget Office indicates that the bill itself wouldn’t affect the number of street vendors, Sanchez said. She added that the budget office said the measure’s license and permit fees would generate extra revenue that would add money to the city’s coffers.

Another bill in the package would “decriminalize” street vending, according to sponsor Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, a Democrat from Queens. It would remove criminal penalties and jail time for breaking vending laws, and only civil penalties would apply.

Violators can currently face a misdemeanor charge, a $150 fine and jail time. The bill would reduce the maximum punishment to a summons ticket and put a $1,000 limit on any fines.

“The vision here is to have a functioning system that allows for the street vendors to thrive, not only survive, in our city,” said Mohamed Attia, the managing director of the Street Vendor Project, which helped craft the bills.

He said vendors want to work within the system, “but sometimes the system doesn’t allow them to.”

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The new package comes as delays and criticism have mired the rollout of Local Law 18 of 2021, a recent legislative victory for street vendors. The health department has missed deadlines to issue extra food vending licenses added under the law. And police continue to issue tickets to vendors after the law created a new office intended to take over street vendor enforcement.

Local Law 18 also created a new licensing system for food vendors, adding an 445 extra licenses each year for food vendors, on top of the roughly 3,000 permits capped since 1983. The number of licenses for merchandise vendors has been at 853 since 1979.

Even with the extra permits, Sanchez said, “those moderate gains are nowhere meeting the tally that we see on the street,” adding that the demand for permits continues to greatly outweigh the supply.

A waitlist for merchandise vendor licenses has long been shuttered. And the waitlist for new food vending licenses has closed, with some 10,000 people in line.

Many new immigrants turn to street vending due to its accessibility, their familiarity with the profession in their home countries and their inability to access other traditional employment pathways, advocates and officials said.

“They should not have to face the risk of arrest and jail time for simply looking to make ends meet to support their families,” Krishnan said.

Other bills would require the city to provide more education for vendors on how to comply with vending laws, and add more legal locations where merchants can sell their wares.

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Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will introduce another bill that would create a division within the department of Small Business Services to provide outreach and education specifically to street vendors. Williams said it’s an important measure to ensure vendors aren’t unduly penalized without first being informed of the rules.

Under current city law, street vendors’ carts must also abut the curb. Advocates say this endangers their safety by situating them close to oncoming traffic. Another bill, from Carmen de la Rosa, a Democrat from northern Manhattan, would instead allow carts to be located within 2 feet from the curb.

When that pathway is obstructed — by, for example, a planter — vendors would be able to place their units as close as possible. Some vendors continue to operate afoul of these location rules, Attia said, but de la Rosa’s bill would ensure they can be there legally.

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