The Street Vendor Project, a group that advocates for the rights of street vendors and helps promote their businesses, launched a new campaign this summer to request that the city approve more vendor licenses and permits.
“The city’s not going to give us everything, so we’re going to fight with them and we’re going to take what we can get,” said James Williams, a senior board member for the vendor project. “It’s not going to be easy.”
But some city authorities and community members are concerned about having more vendors on the streets.
“The concern is that [vendors] are having financial benefit from public space, and [the vendors] there might not directly support the Business Improvement District and its operations,” said Nancy Goshow, a member of Midtown Manhattan’s Community Planning Board 5, at an Aug. 25 meeting.
Business Improvement Districts are independent non-profit organizations, usually supported and funded by city agencies, focused on neighborhood improvement and economic growth. Many of these districts have complained about street vendors clogging up important city arteries and leading to more litter. They also worry about the food carts competing with brick and mortar businesses in the area.
The city’s mobile food vending laws require vendors to have both a license and a permit decal sticker, the former to be worn conspicuously by the vendor and the latter to be placed on the outside of the pushcart or truck. There is a strict cap on available licenses and permits and a nearly 20-year wait-list to get one legally from the New York State Department of Health.
The project’s second request is to open more streets in the neighborhood to vendors. Many streets in Midtown West are currently restricted by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, particularly between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in the stretch from Penn Station to Columbus Circle.
“Around Bryant Park, there’s chaotic vendor activity that’s not exactly peace and quiet for a park,” said George Haikalis, another Community Planning Board 5 member, at the Aug. 25 meeting. He emphasized the need to keep streets restricted around parks in the area.
More than half of Manhattan’s 24 Business Improvement Districts are located on the west side, which may explain the high number of restrictions in the area, according to Stephanie Barreto, staff organizer for the vendor project.
“The thing city folk bring up is that [vendors] are too much unfair competition for the brick and mortars,” says Barreto. “But small businesses and competition are the nature of the beast.” Larger businesses also complain about losing money to street vendors. “To call it unfair when it’s a huge business up against the corner guy selling scarves or food – that’s unfair.”
The project’s first step to open restricted streets is to target the composition of the Street Vendor Review Panel, first instated in 1995 under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The panel, which controls which streets are restricted, is currently made up of four officials from the departments of Small Business Services, City Planning and Transportation. “The panel needs to have more vendor representation so it’s not just people who have very little connection to the street vending community” making decisions, says Barreto.
The project also aims to open up more streets by virtue of clarifying confusing vending laws. One rule mandates that food be kept at a certain temperature, but the way in which that temperature is measured is often inconsistent, according to Barreto. Another problematic regulation prevents vendors from setting up shop less than 20 feet from an entrance, but it’s unclear what actually qualifies as an entrance.
Sharif Palumi, an Egyptian halal vendor next to Radio City Music Hall, sees colleagues getting ticketed multiple times a day for not wearing their licenses visibly enough on their clothing.
Ahmed Mourad, an Egyptian sausage vendor parked legally on 45th Street and 5th Avenue, usually gets three tickets per week for his proximity to a crosswalk.
When street vendors don’t get a license or permit to operate, they may turn to the popular black market, according to Jared Domingos, a food vendor on 66th Street and Columbus Avenue. Vendors rent out their permits, worth just $200 every two years, for between $15,000 and $24,000. Although Domingos operates legally, he’s in favor of the black market. “Some of these guys have no choice; they need the money,” he said.
Project members met with City Council members on September 3 to discuss vendor issues, explain the campaign and ask for support. “It went well and [the councilman] pledged his support,” said project director, Sean Basinski. “There’s no bill that has been introduced yet, but there will be. It’s a work in progress,” he said of the campaign’s next steps.
The last campaign, which lowered the vendor fine from $1,000 to $500 maximum per ticket and was implemented in September 2013, took three to four years.
September 13 was the tenth anniversary of the vendor project’s Vendy Awards – often referred to as the Oscars for street food vendors – and the event will help finance the new campaign.