Last week, the City Council voted 34-13 to approve legislation to reform the street vendor permitting system. According to lawmakers, the number of permits has been capped at 3,000 since 1983, which not only prevented entrepreneurs from entering the industry, but also created an underground market for permits.
If the bill is signed by the mayor, starting in July 2022 the city will release 400 food vending permits per year for the next 10 years. Of those 400 permits, 100 will be issued in Manhattan, while the remaining will be for the other four boroughs.
Councilwoman Margaret Chin, the bill’s prime sponsor, said many food vendors have been taken advantage of by the underground market, which has forced some to pay as much as $30,000 just to rent a permit.
“All they want to do is support their families,” she said. “They have hopes and dreams.”
Chin noted that during the pandemic, street vendors did not get support from any levels of government, which is why she believes now is the time lift the vending cap.
“Vendors are here to stay,” she added. “They’re part of our city and part of our economy.”
The bill requires that a street vendor permit holder must always remain present at their cart. By 2032, all permits, both existing and new, will follow this regulation, which lawmakers believe will close the loophole that has allowed the practice of renting permits.
The city will create a dedicated unit to enforce street vending laws, and focus particularly on locations where street vending is popular and congestion remains an issue.
To monitor the enforcement unit, oversee the new permit rollout and make recommendations to both the mayor and the City Council, the legislation will also create an advisory board made up of street vendor representatives, the small business community, retail food stores, property owners, business organizations and city agencies.
Councilman Peter Koo said during the council’s stated meeting last week that street vending has long been an issue in downtown Flushing. He said the problem got so bad that he passed a law in 2018 restricting vending in congested areas of his district. Years later, he said, those areas are still “overrun by vendors.”
Koo said the problem is exacerbated by city agencies failing to regulate illegal street vending, including the mayor’s office, NYPD, Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and Department of Transportation.
“It’s obvious that there’s simply no appetite by the mayor to direct any city agencies to enforce street vending,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that business people complain, or people get sick from the food or if there’s a lot of garbage on the streets.”
The Flushing councilman said while he’s sympathetic to street vendors, he believes they should be regulated and enforced. Koo said he voted in favor of the legislation precisely because it creates a dedicated enforcement unit.
“It’s time to stop passing the buck,” Koo said. “This bill is not perfect, but it’s a good first step.”
More than a dozen City Council members voted against the bill, arguing that it would pit street vendors against struggling brick-and-mortar small businesses. Councilman Mark Gjonaj, chair of the Small Business Committee, said the bill in its current form leaves too many unanswered questions.
He said there are still concerns about whether street vendors will contribute to business improvement districts (BIDs), where they will place their garbage and whether they or storefronts will have the right of the sidewalk space.
“Instead of an approach that many feel is one-sided, it would have been better for us to consider a comprehensive set of business recue bills that give much-needed assistance to all businesses,” Gjonaj said, “and not putting us in the role of picking winners and losers.”
Councilman Paul Vallone acknowledged that the street vendor industry is overdue for better regulations and protections, noting vendors have worked in a “ridiculous market” for years. He said the City Council should have dealt with the issue long ago, but not at a time when brick-and-mortar businesses are struggling.
He voted against the bill, suggesting that it be held off until the COVID crisis is over.
“We didn’t have to expand and double the number of licenses at a time when the restaurant industry is collapsing,” Vallone said.
A majority of legislators, however, argued that the bill doesn’t pit small businesses against street vendors.
“This is about helping them all,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who called for immediately passing a slew of bills to help small businesses. “We can do that.”
“We don’t want any war here,” added Councilman Brad Lander. “What we want is to do right by those street vendors and by our brick-and-mortar businesses.”