‘To be clear, we support the food vendor community and their place in our neighborhoods. The food is as delicious and diverse as the city itself. But reform on what’s historically been an underground market cannot come at the expense of our brick-and-mortars.’
Mayor de Blasio was right eight years ago when he described New York City as a “tale of two cities.” Unfortunately, the City Council doubled down on that exact notion last week when it passed Intro 1116-B, the Street Vendor Bill that adds 4,000 new food vendor permits and creates an Office of Street Vendor Enforcement. Instead of bringing the city together, the Council created further divisions in the business community.
In the weeks leading up to its passage, we shared our serious reservations with multiple City Council members, especially since Fordham Road is currently without Council representation. Most of the feedback we received ranged from, “We understand your concerns” to “The bill is the start of an ongoing conversation…” The end result was the last-minute addition of a provision, likely by Manhattan council members behind closed doors, that the majority of new food vendor licenses be issued in the outer boroughs. In other words, the final bill was worse.
Our biggest issue is what we see every day here on Fordham Road, one of the city’s largest retail strips with over 300 small businesses, many of which are BIPOC or immigrant-owned. Fordham Road is one of hundreds of zero-visibility zones, which makes street vending illegal Monday through Saturday.* Unlicensed vending on Fordham Road has only proliferated in recent months, and many times vendors block the entrances to storefronts or create trash on the sidewalk, for which our store owners get fined by the Department of Sanitation. This illegal activity from vendors adds insult to injury to those who are struggling to pay their rents and employees during these unprecedented times. Calls for better enforcement fall on deaf ears. If we can’t address enforcement now, how do we expect to deliver true reform when the first new licenses are issued next year.
To be clear, we support the food vendor community and their place in our neighborhoods. The food is as delicious and diverse as the city itself. But reform on what’s historically been an underground market cannot come at the expense of our brick-and-mortars. As Intro 1116-B is about to be signed into law, here are five things we believe need to happen before a single new license is issued:
- Deal with Enforcement Now – Whether it’s NYPD, Department of Consumer and Worker protection (DCWP), Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or another agency, the city keeps passing the buck from agency to agency, doing nothing. If the city is truly committed to reform and supporting small businesses, the city should develop a plan for enforcement now to slow some of the economic pain.
- New Advisory Board Stipulated in Legislation Must Include Business Reps from All Five Boroughs – Reps from Chambers of Commerce, Business Improvement Districts, bodegas, small businesses and street vendors must come from all five boroughs. It can’t just be about all Manhattan, all the time.
- Pass More Laws That Help Small Businesses Instead of Hurting Them – This goes without saying. When the City Council was criticized for hurting small businesses by passing this new vendor legislation, the sponsors of the bill claimed they have helped small businesses by creating programs like Open Restaurants and Open Storefronts. The irony of this claim especially stings for businesses on Fordham Road who can’t participate in these programs because of illegal vendors blocking the sidewalk.
- Conduct a Full Review and Study of Existing Licenses Before New Ones Are Issued – This should have been done before Intro 1116-B was passed, but it isn’t too late to right the ship. The city should look carefully at where existing licenses were issued, where unlicensed vending persists and geographically where it makes the most sense to issue the new licenses, particularly in food deserts. For example, if you venture just a few short blocks from Fordham Road, there’s plenty of room to set-up shop. This will help build a road map on where the new licenses should be issued in a smart and responsible manner.
- Identify Funding & Build the Infrastructure for New Office of Street Vendor Enforcement – Among many of the bill’s flaws and with a growing New York City budget deficit, funding for this new office must be identified right away and the head of this new unit should have either law enforcement experience or a working knowledge of how to enforce existing laws.
Intro 1116-B may have been a bad bill and the process behind it was bad government, but we can still turn this into something positive. Like our friends in the food and street vendor community, we deeply care about the city, our communities and creating opportunities to earn a living in the greatest city in the world. But it must not come at the expense of our commercial corridors. This legislation may have divided us, but this is an opportunity for food vendors and brick-and-mortars to come together in the interest of fair and equitable reform that works for everyone.
Wilma Alonso is executive director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District
*Clarification: The street vending restrictions for Fordham Road prohibit general street vendors from operating there during those days and hours, but these restrictions do not apply to food vendors.