Street Vendor Project elects new board, promises to fight license cap


Sean Basinski, founder and director of the vendor rights group, Street Vendor Project, addressing the members of the organization. Photo: Nokuthula Manyathi

Sean Basinski, founder and director of the vendor rights group, Street Vendor Project, addressing the members of the organization. Photo: Nokuthula Manyathi

UPDATE: Members of the newly elected advisory board of the Street Vendor Project are keeping their cards close to their chests as they plot their next move, in their fight to lift licensing caps.

“We have had a successful year, but in the next term we will have to push a little more,” said Mohammed Attia, after winning another year on the board during Tuesday’s elections. “At at this stage its too early to say what our next move will be. But we will change our strategy.”

More than a 100 members of SVP gathered in downtown Manhattan to cast their ballots and reflect on the successes and failures of this year’s campaigns.  Individuals on the 13-seat advisory board were elected through a secret ballot.

“We won’t stop applying pressure,” said Sean Basinski, SVP’s founder and director.   Basinski said the new strategies would be guided by the community organizing theory— a school of thought which argues that individuals in power only create change when placed under pressure by the masses.

“We are going keep on keeping on. The only people putting pressure on them [the city council] is us. So we are going to continue to court more support and apply the pressure,” said Basinski. He said the organization is waiting to hear from the city council regarding future legislation.

“It seems pretty simple. You just cross out in the law where it says there will only be 3,000 vending permit and then it doesn’t say that anymore, and then the health department can start issuing out permits, and people can work,” he said.  =

A group of protester rallying to City Hall on Tuesday (28 September 2015). Photo: Nokuthula Manyathi

A group of protesters rallying at City Hall on September 28. Photo: Nokuthula Manyathi.

A new report revealing that street vendors contribute $192 million to New York’s economy is fueling debate over what vendors see as restrictive vendor licensing requirements.

“New York’s vending industry generates considerable economic activity but it could do even more if not for the city’s artificial cap on licenses and permits,” reads a new report by non-profit public interest law firm Institute for Justice (IJ). For years, data about street vendors has been scarce. To debunk myths and to learn more about the industry, the IJ surveyed 763 licensed vendors in the 50 largest cities in the United States in 2013. The group then conducted an in-depth economic case study of New York City’s vending industry, which is one of the largest in the country, and found that in 2012, vendors’ contribution to the New York City economy totaled an estimated $192 million in wages and $71.2 million in taxes.

“We have met with countless supporters at City Hall and elsewhere, to explain why our campaign is good for vendors, their customers, and the whole city. Yet still we are waiting for a bill to be introduced at city council,” said Sean Basinski, founder and director of vendor rights group, Street Vendor Project (SVP). Last month, Basinski and nearly 200 street vendors descended on City Hall to put pressure on the city to speed up the reform process. The vendors want an increase in the number of general vending permits.

Currently, the city limits the number of food cart and truck permits to about 3,000 year-round permits and 1,000 seasonal permits for the spring and summer months, a number that hasn’t changed in more than three decades. The city capped the number of vendor permits in 1980 amid pressure from brick-and-mortar merchants, who claimed that street vendors had an unfair business advantage because their start-up and overhead costs were low. Since then, getting a new operating permit has been nearly impossible; the only exemptions are for U.S. military veterans or vendors who sell newspapers and magazines, and fall under the protection of the First Amendment.

The city council’s communications officer said earlier this week that council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito “is keeping all options open, including including lifting the cap entirely,”  but would not answer questions about a timeline, or offer further detail on how far discussions had come.

Last April, the SVP decided to court City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with good results. “I have long been a supporter of street vendors and tried hard to make things better and understand their plight,” she said, at a panel discussion about vendor licenses hosted by SVP at the City University of New York. “Street vendors are not your typical workers, they have no boss, no fixed place of employment no set wage or paid sick days or guarantee of work. But make no mistake, they are workers they have the same needs and the same dreams as everyone else.”

In frustration, new street vendors often turn to the black market to rent permits from third parties at a cost of as much as $ 25,000 for a two-year period. Mohamed Attia, a 27-year-old smoothie and juice vendor in on the corner of 50thStreet and 6th Avenue in Midtown, said that for the last three years he has paid $ 6,000 for a seasonal permit that’s only valid from April to October. This season Attia made $ 7,000 but got to keep only a seventh of his profits.

“It’s become difficult to make ends meet due the high permit costs. It affects me really badly,” he said. Attia, who came to New York from Egypt in 2008 for prospects of a “better life,” said that in the off-season, money is even tighter. “To make money in the off- season, I work for friends who have year-long permits – selling hot dogs and other food stuff. On some evenings I drive cabs,” he said. “I have the option to operate without a permit but it’s too risky. I could be arrested and the police could take away my cart.”

Earlier this year, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer’s office produced a report on small businesses that referenced a study by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a Manhattan-based think tank dedicated to highlighting the critical opportunities and challenges facing New York and other cities. In its study, CUF concluded that businesses with fewer than five employees constituted the bulk of growth in new businesses in New York City between 2000 and 2013, providing a net gain of 31,421 jobs.

“Successful small businesses make our city stronger, bolstering our unique identity and helping to revitalize neighborhoods. They provide a broad range of essential services—such as washing clothes, repairing shoes, and cooking and delivering food—and often go beyond that, exposing their customers to new products or experiences,” read the report. The study the pleads with the city to “recognize street vendors as a legitimate business type” – adding that “New York City should help these sidewalk storefronts grow their businesses” by raising caps on vendor licenses and permits.

But some officials within the city’s business community are wary of the street vendor’s proposal. “We are not anti-street vendor, but we do have a number of concerns regarding the lifting of license caps,” said Michael Lambert, co-chair of the New York City Business Improvement District Association, a union made up of 72 business improvement districts focused on promoting development in small brick-and-mortar storefronts.  The association listed a few requirements before it would give the initiative its full backing.

At the top of their list is a research-based study to determine the current ecosystem of street vendors and also to establish the impact that lifting caps would have on small businesses. The association also wants to have an input on any decisions regarding permanent cap changes. “Just as the interest of street vendors are important, so are those of small businesses. We need to ensure that we find a solution that benefits everyone,” said Lambert. Most importantly, Lambert said the association would like a guarantee of regulatory board between brick-and-mortar businesses and street vendors, to oversee compliance with licensing, trash and insurance rules.

Kelebohile Nkhereanye, a vendor who sells fruits and vegetables in New York City neighborhoods that have limited access to healthy foods, said that for effective change to happen, the city needed to stop using a top-down approach.  “The problem is that the city doesn’t include us on the panels that make decisions about street vendors,” she said. “I think sometimes the misconception is that we are not learned and that we can’t contribute to the discussion. I have a degree in public administration. I vend to make extra money to send back home [Lesotho].”

Because of the lack of response from the city, the SVP will meet on Tuesday, October 13 to brainstorm new ways to get the city to act on their requests. “Street vendors are the fabric of this of city. And it’s important that they are treated fairly,” said Basinski.