More yum, please (Clay Williams/Clay Williams)
It seems every day in New York City brings fresh news of a beloved neighborhood business shutting its doors — too often replaced by a generic chain.
Happily, the ultimate mom-and-pop businesses, street vendors, are still adding life and character to neighborhoods across the city. But the system for regulating this vital sector is decades out of date, and vendors and communities alike are paying the price.
It’s time to bring street vending into the 21st century.
Street vendors have been an iconic part of New York’s landscape since the city was founded. Like bodegas and yellow taxis, they have come to symbolize our diversity, vitality and entrepreneurship the world over.
The city’s culinary cutting edge has increasingly moved to the street, where today New Yorkers and visitors can sample dishes from across the globe — from Guatemala to Vietnam to Afghanistan — all at an affordable price in convenient locations.
Street vending has always been an economic engine for mostly immigrant entrepreneurs. Today the sector generates an estimated $192 million in income in New York City, and contributes millions of dollars in local, state and federal taxes.
But since the 1980s, the city has only given out permits to 3,000 full-time food vendors. This arbitrary cap has forced thousands more vendors to choose between two bad options: buying a permit on the black market (costing upwards of $20,000 each), or simply vending without a legal permit. Unpermitted vendors don’t receive health and safety inspections and are more likely to set up in a location where vending is not allowed.
Meanwhile the rules for even permitted vendors are not being consistently and fairly enforced, in part because of confusing regulations and limited resources.
In short, street vending in New York City today is marred by confusing regulations, inconsistent enforcement, an arbitrary permit cap and an exploitative black market.
The City Council recently introduced a package of bills, known as the Street Vendor Modernization Act, designed to address these challenges. The legislation will establish the city’s first-ever Office of Street Vendor Enforcement, which will ensure that vending laws are followed and applied justly and consistently.
The unit will prioritize enforcement in overcrowded commercial areas throughout the five boroughs.
Beginning in 2018, the new law would also slowly increase the number of food vendor permits, to drain the black market and bring unpermitted vendors out of the shadows and under city inspection. The license cap will increase by 635 full-time permits per year before leveling off again in 2025. Five percent of new permits will be set aside for veterans and the disabled. An advisory board will oversee the entire process, issuing a report every year to guide any future rule changes.
The legislation allows the city to reconfigure vending in a number of the most over-congested commercial streets in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. This likely will lead to a repositioning of vendors away from heavily trafficked subway entrances and over-crowded sidewalks, moving carts and trucks to nearby locations where congestion is more manageable.
At the same time, we would implement key reforms. Vendors will be required to post their prices. Street signs will be installed on blocks where vending is illegal. Required distances from fire hydrants, bus stops, and the curb will be updated and clarified. Vendors will be required to complete training on safety rules and other regulations. And an app will be launched with a satellite view of legal vending locations citywide.
At a City Council hearing last month, New Yorkers from all points of view offered important input on the legislation. Council staff are continuing to tweak the bills based on many good suggestions received from the public.
But modernization is a must. For generations, street vending has served as a path to business ownership for new arrivals to New York City. D’Agostino’s, Fairway, the Halal Guys and so many more all started as humble street carts before growing to become major business enterprises.
We need to keep that path of entrepreneurship alive, ensure that New Yorkers can continue to enjoy delicious street food — and protect communities from inconsistent enforcement.
Levine represents Washington Heights, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side in the City Council.