Report says NYC would reap millions by lifting cap on vendor permits

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By Dan Sears

Eliminating the existing cap on street vendor licenses could generate millions of dollars in economic activity for New York City, according to a new report from the Independent Budget Office.

Members of the city council say the findings support their legislative push to legalize street vendors who currently operate in the underground economy.

Currently, there are 5,100 permits available for food vendors and 853 permits for merchandise vendors. While it’s unclear how many street vendors actually operate across the five boroughs, the report cited estimates of as many as 20,000, with an equal or even greater number of people on a waitlist for permits.

Street vendors last summer protest a crackdown on unlicensed food carts in Corona Plaza.

Arya Sundaram / Gothamist

The report also cited growing demand due to “the influx of migrants from South and Central America, many of whom have turned to vending on streets and subways.”

The IBO report estimated that under a “higher-demand scenario,” in which an additional 16,696 permits were granted, the city would generate $13.4 million in increased revenue, after administrative costs were factored in. Those revenues include increased sales taxes as well as permit fees.

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Two council members who have introduced legislation to expand the pool of permits said they were “heartened” by the IBO’s report.

“By bringing street vending out of the shadows, our city would join other cities across the U.S. that do not place arbitrary caps on vending, and instead effectively regulate all vendors,” said Amanda Farías and Pierina Sanchez in a joint statement.

“This will provide vendors with a government touchpoint that will improve the safety of goods sold, increasing compliance on our sidewalks, raising tax and fee revenues for the city during this fiscally difficult time, and per these findings, being fiscally positive for our city,” the statement said.

Street vendors sell merchandise on the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path in New York City on March 16. Earlier this year, the city forced street vendors doing business on the Brooklyn Bridge and other spans in the city to move their operations.

PAUL FRANGIPANE/AFP via Getty Images

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Efforts to increase the number of licensed vendors have encountered opposition from brick-and-mortar business groups. The NYC Bid Association called Farias and Sanchez’s bill “premature at best.” And unlicensed vendors across the city have experienced crackdowns on activity.

The report said that the overall macroeconomic impact of lifting the cap would likely be “modest” – millions of additional dollars in a city whose budget is well over $100 billion – but that the impact on individual vendors would be significant.

“Holding a legal permit or license would prevent some street vendors from receiving costly tickets and having their materials confiscated by law enforcement,” the report reads.

Advocates for street vendors argue that current rules and regulations are onerous.

Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendors Project, called the existing system “very dysfunctional.”

“It creates conflict,” she said. “It creates disorder.”

Kaufman-Guetierrez said that a number of cities and states, including Nevada, California and Washington, D.C., have attempted to “rethink street vending because of the positive benefits that street vending can bring to cities and states, as not just a cultural benefit to the soul of cities and states but also an economic benefit.”

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“We’re talking about businesses that pay taxes at the end of the day,” she said. “And creating jobs.”

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