BY DANIEL FITZSIMMONSMore street vendors could be doing business on city streets.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has signaled her office is looking into raising or eliminating altogether the street vendor permit cap, news that has delighted some in the vending community and given pause to some in the wider business community.
The city currently issues 3,000 year-round food and truck cart permits and 1,000 summer permits, as well as 853 general merchandise permits. Advocates for eliminating the cap say there are many more vendors who want to work and are obliged to do so illegally, risking fines, or shell out thousands of dollars for a permit on the black market.
But some officials within the city’s business community are wary of the proposal, citing a lack of details about the number of vendors that could be added. The New York City Business Improvement District Association, an umbrella group made up of 72 BIDs, has called for a comprehensive and research-based study, as well as input from the business community, before any change to the permit cap is made. The association would also like a guarantee of regulatory parity between brick-and-mortar businesses and street vendors.
“In recent years, the city has placed sole responsibility for sidewalk and curb-front maintenance and cleanliness on property owners, and the law restricts the use of public space by storefront businesses,” the BID association said in a position statement released in June. “Equity demands that those making commercial use of public space be held to the same legal standards.”
The association would like street vendors to have to comply with the same licensing, odor, trash, insurance and signage rules that brick-and-mortar imposed on businesses.
Not much is known about how many vendors would be added if the cap were lifted, or how an influx of street vendors would affect the multitude of city agencies — including the police department, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Consumer Affairs — that are charged with regulating vendors. There’s also the question of how much congestion adding hundreds of street vendors to the rolls would have on city streets, said Michael Lambert, the co-chair of the association.
“There should probably be a bit more study of this issue because there aren’t a lot of concrete numbers out there,” he said. “We just want to make sure that any decision that’s made is done with the best interests of everyone in mind.”
Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy organization, thinks he has a way to get those concrete numbers.
“You know how we solve that problem?” he said. “Let them come down and sign up and then we’ll know how many there are.”
Basinski argues that legitimizing more vendors will normalize the system and allow for increased regulation and safety as the new permit-holders will have to comply with current health and sanitation standards.
“If they want to control vendors, let them get licenses,” said Basinski, who noted the city will also benefit from increased tax revenue on new permits. “Bring people into the system, don’t keep them out.”
Basinski estimates there is one illegal vendor for every permitted vendor. And, he said, slinging hot dogs and T-shirts is no walk in the park for those who think pushing a cart is simply a way to avoid the hassle of operating a storefront.
“When it rains and snows you get wet, you don’t have a bathroom to go to, you don’t get to roll down the gate at night and push your cart into a garage, which, by the way, you do pay rent on,” he said.
And, he added, many small businesses in the city got their start on the street. “The streets have been an incubator for small business,” he said. “Small businesses include street vendors.”
On Central Park South recently, vendors mostly agreed that lifting the cap would be a good idea.
“I think there should be more permits,” said Mohamed Haroon, who has been selling T-shirts and New York-themed memorabilia near Columbus Circle for about four months.
“There’s not enough permits out there for people who want to work,” said a hotdog vendor named Ibrahim. He said he’s unconcerned about the potential for increased competition, claiming the city’s too big to worry about things like that, and that he knows “a lot of people” who want a vendor permit but cannot get one.
Kevin Reilly, who has employees operating a hot dog cart and T-shirt stand on Central Park South, is of two minds about the issue. If he had a say in the matter he said he would probably vote to keep the cap where it is. But, he added, people should be allowed to work if they’re willing and able.
“More power to them if they have the opportunity to work,” said Reilly, who as an Army veteran obtained his permits through a program guaranteeing vendor permits to honorably discharged veterans. “But on the other hand it’s imposed on me that this cap is beneficial to me to reduce my competition.”
As for vendors competing with local stores, Basinksi said the research shows this to be a non-issue, and that a customer who wants to sit down and eat somewhere isn’t going to opt for a halal cart, much like a day worker looking for a quick bite isn’t going to have time to look at a menu in a dining room.
“Every research study that’s been done shows that vendors do not compete with brick and mortars,” he said.
Lambert stressed his association isn’t against vendors. Association members would, however, like to see a slow-and-steady approach as opposed to blindly lifting the cap.
“We’re not anti-vendor — vending is part of the fabric of New York City,” said Lambert. “We recognize this is part of New York culture.”
A spokesperson for Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office said the speaker sees the issue as a way to expand opportunities for vendors who want to work but can’t due to the current cap, or are forced to operate illegally and risk fines. The spokesperson also said all options are on the table, including lifting the cap entirely. So far, however, a date has not been set for a proposal to be revealed.
Lambert said the BID association looks forward to being part of that discussion.
“We look forward to coming up with a solution that works for everyone,” said Lambert.
Street vendors held a rally at City Hall on Sept. 22 to pressure lawmakers into lifting the cap, and Lambert said his group won’t be easing up anytime soon with a proposal on the way from Viverito’s office.
“We’re definitely not going to let up,” Basinski said. “We have other tactics, there’s a lot of things a group can do to keep this at the forefront of people’s minds.”