However, vendors and their advocates say those promises have been unfulfilled.
They complain they’re feeling the brunt of a crackdown by City Hall that continues unabated, including a ticketing blitz for infractions. Merchants complain of lost revenues, petty enforcement, and a threat to a livelihood that has long sustained mostly immigrant entrepreneurs.
“Working here is like the deer in the forest,” vendor MD – short for Muhammad – Abdul Munaf said through a Bengali translator. He was ticketed earlier this year in Jackson Heights for selling Muslim religious items without a license. “We’re always scared of the tigers coming and eating us. Getting attacked.”
The vendors — there are an estimated 20,000 across the city – plan to protest outside 1 Bowling Green at 10 a.m. on Thursday against what they described as broken promises and punishing treatment.
Mohamed Attia, director of the 2,000-member Street Vendor Project, said vendors want the city to ban the NYPD from enforcing vending laws, and instead put power in the hands of a civilian-led agency, which they surmise would be less heavy handed.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment. But Michael Lanza, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which also enforces vendor laws, said unlicensed vending and vendors who flout the rules "put New Yorkers at risk of everything from foodborne illness to traffic crashes.”
“Street vendors are a vital part of New York City’s economic landscape; however, everyone must follow the city’s rules and laws," Lanza said. "Vending is a complicated issue that impacts us all — from the vendors themselves to local businesses to residents and visitors. DCWP inspectors are committed to an education-first approach to vending enforcement, which includes the opportunity to comply before issuing violations."
Working here is like the deer in the forest. We’re always scared of the tigers coming and eating us. Getting attacked.
As part of a package of police reforms announced in the wake of the Black Lives Matter social justice protests of 2020, former Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to transfer vendor enforcement from the NYPD to the DCWP.
That decision was codified with an NYPD operations order, and City Council law Int. 1116 passed early last year. Notwithstanding that change, vendors complain they are facing the toughest crackdown in years – backed up by city data. Fines can range from $25 to upwards of $1,000 for violators.
A Gothamist analysis in January showed a dramatic drop in NYPD vending tickets, from 525 in the third quarter of 2019 to 289 in the same quarter of 2021. But vendors overall saw more tickets in that quarter because the NYPD and the DCWP combined issued a total of 540 tickets.
A City Limits report from last month analyzed a full year of data – from June last year to the end of May. It showed the agencies combined issued nearly 2,500 fines, a 33% increase from 2019.
Dodging the inspectors
In some neighborhoods, vendors said they’ve cut back on hours and have lost pay in order to avoid weekly DCWP visits and tickets. Munaf, 72, said he was the first vendor to set up a table on his Jackson Heights block 10 years ago, and current enforcement levels are unlike anything he’s seen in that time.
This latest enforcement battle is part of a centuries-long tug of war between vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses, with the city very often playing referee and juggling health, safety and traffic concerns. Retailers worry about losing business to fruit stands, taco trucks, and makeshift stalls selling fake designer handbags and housewares.
Meanwhile vendors, many of whom are immigrants, argue they have a right to earn a living, even without such prerequisites as storefronts and licenses.
Many of the current vendor regulations – like a cap on food vending permits and general vendor licenses – were instituted under Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani from the 1970s to 1990s.
As New York City attempted to rebrand itself following the financial crisis of the 1970s, vending was seen as a sign of a nuisance or vice, said Ryan Devlin, assistant professor at Temple University’s city and regional planning program who has studied vending in the city for nearly two decades.
“What you’re seeing now is a move among politicians to reconceptualize vending,” he said, referring to the reforms from de Blasio and the City Council. “Because of the work of groups like the Street Vendor Project to reconceptualize vending as a small business, as a livelihood activity, as something that has a valid place in the city – versus being lumped in with homeless, with squeegee men, with prostitutes.”
Street vendors are a vital part of New York City’s economic landscape; however, everyone must follow the city’s rules and laws.
Many vendors are ticketed for operating without a general vendor license or food vendor permit. Vendors said city limits on such documents and lengthy closed waitlists make legal operation virtually impossible.
Only 853 general licenses are available, with a waitlist of about 12,000 people that has been closed for nearly a decade, according to a Community Service Society of New York report from earlier this year.
Food vendor licenses, meanwhile, are easier to obtain than general vendor licenses, but permits required to operate a cart or stall are capped. The city will add an additional 4,000 food vendor permits over the next decade under the council’s vending reform law passed last year, Int. 1116, nearly doubling the total number available.
Nearly 6,000 people were on the waitlist for such permits as of 2016, the CSSNY report said.
Ruth Palacios, 43, and her husband Arturo Xelo, 60, received a DCWP ticket last summer for vending without a license – her first infraction in nearly a decade of vending on a busy street corner abutting Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens. Outside Rite Aid, they sell plastic cups of cut fruit, like mango and watermelon, along with Mexican-style street corn – "elotes" and "esquites" – from a stand with a large pot for corn and condiment bottles like Tajin and lemon juice.
Palacios’ apartment burned down last year, destroying most of her belongings. She said she pleaded with the officers to no avail. They handed her a pink paper with a court summons and a fine up to $1,000.
She fought off the ticket with legal help from the Street Vendor Project. Palacios and her husband stopped vending, but, strapped for money to pay bills, they restarted after about a month. Now they don’t set up their stand – a metal table and attached blue umbrella – on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they said DCWP officers often stop by, and they said they lose out on income they once relied on, roughly $200 to $300 per day.
Next to Palacios’ stand, a generator hums from Antonio Gaona’s Tacos Izucar trailer, which displays a mobile food vendor permit with a city seal by the window. A DCWP worker issued Gaona a $25 ticket earlier this month because his cart was positioned too far from the curb, according to a summons.
Munaf and other vendors on his Jackson Heights block said they now set up their tables – with stacks of Qurans, piles of prayer hats known as kufis, and patterned scarves hanging from stacked crates – around noon instead of 9 a.m. to avoid inspectors.
Munaf said his pre-pandemic daily sales of roughly $600 have been slashed in half, partly because of his shorter schedule.
The Real Estate Board of New York and NYC Business Improvement District Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.