Midtown Street Vendors Fight to Survive Amid City’s Reopening




José, a street vendor, sells fruit in Times Square. Photo: Marta Campabadal

When the Covid pandemic forced New York City to lock down last year, street vendors were designated as essential workers. As brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants closed, the vendors continued providing two essential services: making meals and selling masks. Now, as the city reopens, vendors are facing increased challenges related to licenses and permits.

“A pandemic provides some opportunities to advance on our agenda,” said Eric Nava-Pérez, an organizer for the Street Vendor Project. The organization, which supports more than 2,000 vendors, is asking the mayor and city council to place a moratorium on fines related to a lack of permits and licenses. 

Last January, the council passed Intro 1116. The legislation, which is set to take effect next year, will create 4,000 new permits to be distributed over a period of 10 years. While there has been some progress on increasing the number of permits, the Street Vendor Project said the temporary moratorium would provide immediate relief. 

Fines for vendors operating without a permit can range from $250 to $1,000. Currently, the city caps the number of permits for those selling food, flowers, t-shirts, and several other goods at about 6,000. In addition to a permit, which could cost several thousands of dollars, street vendors who sell food also need a license. A license costs $50 every two years. 

A street vendor selling masks and sunglasses in Midtown. Photo: Marta Campabadal

Before the pandemic, the Street Vendor Project estimates there were about 20,000 street vendors across the city. Now, the project believes there are even more, because people who lost their jobs looked to set up shop on the street. There are currently 11,926 vendors on a waitlist to get a permit, according to New York City Open data, a public collection of information related to city agencies and organizations.

Sylvie Cui, works in Midtown and picks up food from street vendors on her way home to Long Island. “Street vendors have a key role, especially during the pandemic, because people are more comfortable buying and eating outside than indoors,” said Cui. 

José, who did not want to share his last name because he does not have a license or permit, sells fruit in Times Square. He moved here from Ecuador with his wife and daughter three months ago. He currently earns about $160 a day. “I would like the police to stop giving me problems and fines,” he said. “I just want to have a permit to be able to make a living and be at peace with my small business.” José said the high cost to obtain a license and permit has prevented him from being able to get either. 

José sells mango, cantaloupe and watermelon in Times Square.  Photo: Marta Campabadal

According to Nava-Pérez, the current cap on the number of permits for food vendors has forced an underground market. He said some vendors who have them, rent them out to others for $15,000 to $25,000.

Saraí Rodríguez does have her own license, but rents her permit for $10,000 a year. She serves quesadillas and tacos in Midtown. She is a single mother of four who said she keeps working to be able to care for her children. “Before the pandemic, I was earning around $1,300 a day, working from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Now, I come earlier and leave later. I basically stay here until I earn around $500 or $600,” she said.

City council members are split on the issue. Manhattan Democrat Margaret Chin voted in favor of increasing the number of permits available to street vendors. During the vote in January 2021, she said, “This legislation will bring hope and opportunity to hardworking New Yorkers who are immigrants, who have been historically left out of a lot of the government’s support.”

Councilmember Mark Gjonaj voted against the bill. “I do not doubt the intent, but there is an honest disagreement about the impact that this legislation will have on our struggling small businesses, of which many are women, minority, and immigrant-owned,” he said during the vote.

The Street Vendor Project believes the council is delaying action until a new administration takes over next year. It hopes that with the application of Intro 1116 in January and a new mayor, its members will continue to see progress on their concerns. 

Saraí Rodríguez has a cart where she serves quesadilla, tacos and other Mexican food. // Marta Campabadal

Rodriguez looks forward to change. “I don’t want to stay the way I am with a cart. Maybe I want a second one and from there I want to open a restaurant in Manhattan,” she said. And I feel that after everything I have been through, I will eventually get there.”