Thousands of food carts help prop up New York City with an always-ready supply of cheap hot dogs, utility gyros, and sickly-sweet coffee. But according to a new report, those carts are propped up by an exploitative shadow economy that oppresses some of the city's most vulnerable residents, trapping them in a cycle of extortion.

In an expertly-reported feature from Crain's New York, we're introduced to Sharif, an Afghan native who now resides in Flushing and commutes every morning to set up his food cart in Midtown, often before dawn. Although Sharif owns his own cart—he built it, in fact—it is controlled by a mysterious "Mr Q," a man in New Jersey who owns Sharif's mobile food vending permit and demands a sizable cut of the day's take.

In an effort to control the growth of food vendors, particularly in Manhattan, former Mayor Ed Koch set a limit on the number of valid mobile food vending permits that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene could administer at any one time. "The mayor’s move turned pushcarts into the new taxis, whose medallions—not the cars themselves—are the valuable asset," Crain's points out.

The result of Koch's move was a kind of sharecropping economy, in which vendors pay rent not for their carts, but for their permits, which are retained by former vendors who have quit the business and are now reselling them on the black market. That system keeps Sharif and others under intense financial pressure. Crain's reports that some vendors pay as much as $30,000 per year to the rightful owners of their vendor permits, and the entire black market is valued at $15 to $20 million a year.

Now, food cart vendors are stuck in a kind of extortion ouroboros. From the article:

Because they’re so valuable but not legally transferable, these permits never officially change hands. Instead, brokers help permit seekers find permit holders who no longer want to man a cart. The vendor who needs a permit—and a cart—might pay a flat fee every two years, upon renewal, or work out a profit-sharing arrangement.

In this manner, an estimated 70% to 80% of permits are illegally in use by someone other than the permit holder. Some have been legally owned by the same person for two decades, even if he or she hasn’t touched a shawarma since the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Sharif and others quoted in the piece say they often work nine hour days for six or seven days a week, and still only pull in $400 to $700 per week—all while supporting families on that income. What's more, many of the commissaries and garages where vendors' carts are stored serve as hubs for illegal, exploitative deal-making.

The entire Crain's piece is top-notch investigation into the exploitation of people who often get taken for grated as urban scenery in this town, and it's definitely worth a full read.