New York City Limits Street Vending Permits

Street vendors and advocacy groups are pushing City Hall to lift the cap on food and general vending licenses and permits issued in New York.

A hub for mobile vending, the city’s cap was issued in the early 1980s; it reduced vending food permits from 12,000 to nearly 3,000. Merchandise permits were capped at 853. The restriction has led to many vendors purchasing illegal permits on the black market, risking steep fines, arrest and confiscation of their carts. Legal licenses generally cost between $100-$200 while illegal permits can sell for as much as $25,000.

Cecelia, who asked for her last name not to be printed, says the cap affected her when she emigrated from Grenada in the ’80s. Unable to secure a permit, she sold kitchenware and apparel without a vending license.

“I know what it was like being harassed by the police, then the judge,” she recalls. “My daughter, who is a veteran, helped me get my license and now I don’t have to face the judge anymore.”

Mohammed Hashem, a fruit and vegetable vendor in Brooklyn, is in support of the lift. He says that street vending helps people, especially immigrants, earn an income and provide for their families. According to the Street Vendor Project, an organization that promotes the rights of street vendors, 90 percent of vendors are immigrants.

Hashem immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1995 and has operated his fruit and vegetable stand in the city for twenty years now.
But not all vendors have been successful in securing a permit. Waiting lists are long and the renewal process can be difficult. Only 2,800 citywide permits are issued and they are only valid for two years.

Street vendors and advocacy groups have three immediate demands: eliminate the cap on food vending permits and general vending licenses, allow green cars to vend in any NYC borough, and allow vending three feet from the curb.

“Vendorships open the ladder of opportunities for many Americans,” says Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, who represents the 45th district of NYC in Brooklyn. “It is critical that in the American capital market, that there is solid critical room for those who are just entering the United States, or those who do not have extensive work history in order to climb the corporate ladder to have opportunities to gain critical marketing, people-person and other critical business skills to support their families. Vendorships provide this opportunity.”

Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership and the Bryant Park Management Corporation, supports the current cap and doesn’t see a need for revision. He believes increasing the number of street vendors will clog sidewalks and is unfair competition with brick-and-mortar businesses.

But Sean Basinki, a lawyer and the director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, believes lifting the cap will increase the city’s revenue, make food options more diverse, allow more vendors to obtain permits and be self-employed, decriminalize street vending and increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I want people to be able to work legally,” he says. “Street vendors deserve more respect from the city just like any other job is respected. We need some action.”

Although some progress has been made, Councilman Williams believes that there is still more work to be done.

“The administration should continue to review existing street vendor regulations to ensure that they are able to operate fairly and openly in areas across our city,” he says. “It requires active participation of the administration, the council and vested vendor stakeholders.”

No date has been set as to when or if the caps will be lifted. Basinki says they’ll continue to apply pressure while waiting to hear from the city council regarding future legislation.