New York City's new approach to street vendor enforcement was meant to alleviate the burden on operators, but recent data indicates those coffee stands, halal carts and hot dog purveyors are actually getting ticketed more than they used to.
It’s been more than a year since former Mayor Bill de Blasio shifted responsibility for enforcing vendor regulations from the NYPD to the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. Last year, the DCWP issued more than 700 tickets for violations of the city’s vending regulations. The NYPD has also continued to issue a healthy amount of tickets to vendors, despite the new policy.
A WNYC/Gothamist analysis of street vendor summonses showed police tickets are down dramatically since 2019 — the last comparable year due to the pandemic. But, between the police and now the consumer protection department, vendors actually received more tickets in the third quarter of 2021 than during the same period in 2019. (Fourth quarter data for 2021 is not yet available.)
Street vendors and their advocates, who have long criticized police for harassment, praised de Blasio’s policy change last January, but they say interactions with officers and city inspectors continue to hurt their livelihoods.
“[For a] micro-business trying to survive, trying to recover from the pandemic and the losses… dealing with that excessive enforcement is very devastating and very disappointing,” said Mohamed Attia, the executive director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group that represents about 2,000 of the city’s vendors.
Police officers [are] dealing with me like I’m doing something illegal on the street, like I’m selling drugs
One of those vendors is Mohamed Awad, who sells halal food from a cart on 33rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue in Manhattan. He alleges police ticketed him more than 70 times in 2021. In December, for example, he said two officers approached him and cited him for allegedly not standing close enough to the curb, a violation punishable by up to $1,000 under city law.
Awad said the NYPD’s enforcement amounts to criminalizing street vendors for plying their trade. “Police officers [are] dealing with me like I’m doing something illegal on the street, like I’m selling drugs,” he said.
Operating a street cart has long been a go-to for immigrant New Yorkers trying to eke out a living — even more so during the pandemic, when people in the restaurant and hospitality trades were losing their jobs en masse.
But the problem of regulating the vendors has bedeviled city officials for decades. Past attempts to raise the cap on the number of street vendor licenses in New York were met with fierce backlash from brick-and-mortar businesses who felt the vendors were cutting into their bottom line. Meanwhile, license owners, similar to the taxi medallion business, were charging operators exorbitant rates to operate under their permits.
Attia, of the Street Vendor Project, said the city’s ongoing regulation goes against the spirit of the city’s policy change. The former mayor had announced plans to remove police from vendor enforcement at the height of the Black Lives Matters protests in summer 2020. That followed photos and videos emerging in 2019 of police handcuffing Latina women selling churros in the subways, seizing their goods and hauling them off in tears.
“For so many people of color, for so many immigrants, street vending is their opportunity to move forward,” de Blasio said in 2020. “They should not have to engage the NYPD as they’re trying to make their livelihood.”
Mayor Eric Adams’ office has not responded to a request for comment, despite the mayor recently singing the praises of his local fruit stand.
When asked about officers’ interactions with street vendors, NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Edward Riley said, “the NYPD maintains its authority over safety issues such as blocking pedestrian traffic, operating too close to building or subway entrances and, as reflected in the small number of summonses issued, officers use a high level of discretion.”
The number of NYPD tickets for vendors during the first three quarters of 2021 decreased by 8.5 percent, compared to the same period the year before — and by 71 percent since 2019. But, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection conducted more than 6,000 of its own inspections and issued 762 tickets to street vendors last year. In all, vendors received more than 1,187 tickets last year, not including NYPD summonses over the winter. They received 540 of those tickets between July and September last year, compared to 525 during the same period in 2019.
Irene Arizaga, who sells chuzos (a tybe of kebab) alongside other street vendors on Roosevelt Avenue and Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens, said that while she has noticed fewer police sweeps on the commercial strip, DWCP inspections have hurt vendors at a time when they are struggling to recover from the pandemic.
She said civilian inspectors visited the area four times in the first week of January, forcing her to stop working. “They tell us, ‘We’ll give you 10 minutes and if you’re not gone, then tickets,” she said, adding that the prospect of their visits keeps her on edge every day. “So we have to pack up everything as fast as possible to avoid a ticket, and we leave.”
She also said that replacing police with the DWCP doesn’t address the restrictive vending regulations she believes are the root of the problem. She’s one of thousands of street vendors across the five boroughs working without a required license because the city capped the number of licenses at 2,900 for decades. Selling without a license, and vending in prohibited areas like the subway, were the two main types of vendor violations cited by both the NYPD and the DCWP last year. A new law signed last year will gradually create more licenses over the next ten years, but the first round won’t be available until this summer.
In the meantime, advocates for vendors say they are continuing to ask the DCWP and the Adams administration to do more to educate vendors on regulations, rather than penalize them.
Arizaga said she hopes the city will do more to reform its regulations and support local vendors, who are essential workers.
“We are part of the city’s economy,” she said. “We supplied all the needs of New York and its people during the pandemic. We stayed in the streets serving the public.”
With translation assistance from Christian Herrera.