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City Council Moves to Lift Street Vendor Permit Cap in Historic Vote

Thursday’s vote caps a years-long effort to increase the number of permits offered to the city’s street vendors

Daily Life New York
NYC’s street vending community received a major boost after a years-long effort
Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The New York City Council voted Thursday to approve Intro. 1116-B, the legislation that will create 4,000 new permits for street vendors in the city over the next decade, and will create a separate law enforcement unit to oversee the street vending community.

Thirty-four members voted in favor of the bill and 13 members voting against, seemingly pitting the street vending community against the restaurant industry with many in opposition to the bill saying saying the increased permits would drive away business from restaurants. Still, the bill garnered a significant amount of support among Council members, restaurants owners, and some business improvement districts as well, ensuring its passage.

“Food vendors give us opportunity to taste food from around the world, and we need to support them,” said City Council member Margaret Chin, the lead sponsor of the bill, in a press conference held prior to the Council vote this afternoon. “This will give hope and opportunity to a lot of hardworking street vendors.”

Starting in July 2022, the city will begin handing out 400 supervisory licenses, as these vending licenses are officially known, each year for a 10-year period until 2032. Of the 400 licenses issued each year, 300 will be in boroughs other than Manhattan, while the rest will be open to everyone else in the city. In addition, the bill requires license holders to be present at their carts while they’re in operation, a move designed to quash the underground market that has developed, often charging vendors tens of thousands of dollars to operate illegally. The new license measure — which comes with a $500 annual fee for license holders — more than doubles the existing 2,900 license cap that’s been in place in the city for decades.

Ahead of the launch next summer, the bill calls for the creation of a dedicated vendor enforcement unit comprised of workers specifically trained in vending laws. This enforcement unit will be on the streets by September 2021, and be staffed to inspect 75 percent of vendors citywide at least once a year. The bill will officially end the longstanding practice of allowing a variety of agencies enforcing rules and levying fines on street vendors, most notably the New York City Police Department, which has been repeatedly called out for its at times heavy handed treatment of street food vendors. A priority of the enforcement unit will be to focus on areas that have heavy congestion and multiple vendors in the same place.

The bill also creates a new advisory board that includes members of various city agencies like the departments of health, transportation, small businesses, and the NYPD; six members selected by the City Council speaker including two vendor representatives, two small business representatives, one property owner representative, and one from a community organization; and four members selected by the Mayor including two from the street vending community, and two from small businesses. The advisory board will monitor the enforcement unit and the license expansion program while also making recommendations to the Council speaker and the mayor.

A number of other ancillary measures in the bill include:

  • Creating a training program so vendors can familiarize themselves with vending rules
  • Expanding the green cart program, which aims to increase the number of fruit and vegetable vendors across the city
  • Maintaining that vendors stay at least 20 feet away from sidewalk cafes
  • Creating a website and mobile app that would allow vendors to view a map of legal places to setup

Thursday’s vote marks a major shift for the street vending community, which has been advocating for years to increase the number of permits and regulate enforcement in light of the underground market and the decades-old cap on new permits.

“Today we are making history,” said Mohamed Attia, the director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, one of the leading advocates of the street vending community, during the same press conference. “We’ve never pitted street vendors against brick-and-mortar restaurants. We support everyone thriving together.”

Yet, many in the restaurant industry don’t share that sentiment. Earlier this month, more than 150 restaurants and local business organizations signed a letter opposing the legislation saying it would drive away business from their establishments. During Thursday’s vote, several City Council members voted against the bill citing this reported burden on restaurants.

“This legislation pits one against the other,” said City Council member Mark Gjonaj, the chair of the Council’s small business committee, who has strongly advocated for the restaurant community during the pandemic, adding that the bill would impact several restaurants already decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, there are several in the restaurant industry who do support this legislation including restaurateur Andrew Tarlow, Sunnyside’s Bolivian Llama Party, and the Bronx’s La Morada, among others. In addition, Nicholas Freudenberg, the director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute, told Gothamist earlier this week that he wasn’t aware of any evidence suggesting that street vendors negatively impact small brick-and-mortar businesses.

Council member Chin had first introduced the bill in 2018, but it slowly made its way through the legislative process over the past few years having only first come up for a Council hearing in 2019. Street vendor advocates made a renewed push last year in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which had a disproportionate impact on street vendors, a majority of whom are immigrants and people of color.

Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his support behind the City Council bill as well, ensuring that it will be signed into law following today’s vote.