Only 4,000 street vending permits and 5,000 street food licenses have been issued in the city since 1983.

Edwin Martínez

Street merchants demand that the City Council finally approve more vendor licenses.

This story first appeared in El Diario.

Translated by Carlos Rodriguez from Spanish.

Hundreds of street vendors, community activists and political leaders gathered on Thursday near City Hall to demand that the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio take them seriously and finally resolve the problem of a lack street merchant permits, which have been stalled since 1983.

Carrying signs and giving speeches demanding respect and dignity for the labor they carry out as essential workers, the demonstrators called on the authorities to vote and approve Intro 1116, which would authorize the dispensation of new street vending permits as soon as possible.  

“That is all we are asking for: to be allowed to work, and to stop being treated as if we were criminals. If we do not have permits it is because they have not issued them for almost 40 years. How can we possibly make a living in the midst of the pandemic? It is not fair for them to do this to us,” said vendor María de la Cruz, who sells churros in subway stations, adding that she wants the police to give merchants like her a break. 

“We are decent people—honest, hard-working people—and they keep chasing us out like rats. They give us incredibly high fines that leave us without money to eat after we pay them,” said the Ecuadoran-born mother of three.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a sponsor of the bill, urged lawmakers to vote on the proposal to help street vendors, most of whom are immigrants. The bill has been under Council consideration for two years.

“It is time to approve this law. It is time to issue more permits. During this pandemic, street merchants received no assistance, neither federal, nor state, nor city aid. By selling, many of them are helping other low-income New Yorkers. We have to give them justice,” said the councilwoman, adding that the initiative has the support of 40 council members. 

(…) “I am confident that we are finally going to pass this law because the voices of support of our street vendors continue to grow, and I hope that not only will we see hundreds of new permits approved soon, but also health and safety protections,” said Councilman Carlos Menchaca, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigration. “The mayor should focus on this law. Unfortunately, he is a mayor who does not focus on the causes of immigrants or essential workers, but we do not need him because we count on the power of the City Council to approve this law, and we will pass it with or without him.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos – who in 2019 introduced a bill in the State Legislature to remove limits on the number of street vendor permits issued per year so that all merchants could have access to them – said that it is time to take down the label of “illegal worker” from people who earn an honest living. 

“We have spent decades struggling to help street vendors, but we have seen more of our neighbors turn to this type of work – which is honest work – in the middle of this pandemic, seeking to build a better future for their families. It is time for us to solve this,” said the Queens politician. (…)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams criticized police harassment and fining of street vendors, and asked for a change to the mindset on public safety that criminalizes minorities and immigrant workers. 

In the Big Apple, only 4,000 street vending permits and 5,000 street food licenses have been issued since 1983. These have proven to be insufficient to match the significant population growth the city has seen in the last four decades. 

“Despite their fundamental contributions to keeping New York City running, street vendors have been excluded from any assistance efforts made available to small businesses, and many of them are struggling to survive,” stated the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, which advocates in favor of the merchants. The organization criticized that the most vulnerable have not been offered aid, in contrast with other sectors. “The city threw a lifesaver to approximately 10,000 restaurants by allowing them to expand into the streets and sidewalks through an outdoor dining program. Meanwhile, street vendors are being fined for thousands of dollars for minor administrative infractions for operating in similar spaces.”

If the bill is approved, an Office of Street Vendor Enforcement would be created to expand the availability of permits for food merchants and oversee compliance with the law. It would also establish a street vendor advisory board, and 4,000 new permits would be created over the course of 10 years. 

Juan Soto, a spokesman for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, said that the political leader is aware of the importance of street vendors to the economy and the city, but did not specify whether there is a plan to pass the law in the near future or whether the politician supports it. 

“At a moment when we are facing a serious economic crisis, street vendors are offering affordable food options to New Yorkers, and the jobs they create are a lifeline for New York’s immigrants,” said the spokesman. “(The Speaker) is working to find ways to help this vital industry.”

The de Blasio Administration did not comment on the merchants’ complaints, but the NYPD stated that a transition is underway to have other agencies take charge of enforcing the law with street vendors.