In 2021, 45.9 percent or 350 of the tickets issued to street vendors by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) were for unlicensed vending, and this year, 12.8 percent (22 tickets) have already been issued for the same reason.

Adi Talwar

A street vendor at the 207 street subway entrance.

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New York street vendors held a press conference Monday followed by a 24-hour sleep-out in front of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office in Midtown Manhattan, calling on the governor to support and legalize street vending through a bill under consideration in Albany as the state budget deadline draws near.

The bill, S1175 / A5081, would reshape the street vending sector in New York by requiring the city to create and adopt a program for regulating vendors that would do away the current cap on the number of licenses, which critics say has for years led to the penalization of vendors who are unable to get their hands on one to operate legally. While another piece of legislation passed by the City Council in 2021 expanded the number of vendor licenses the city can offer by a few hundred a year, the state proposal would go further by prohibiting the city from restricting that amount at all, to “make sure every street vendor is licensed,” according to the text of the bill.

“It took the City Council seven years to pass Intro 1116,” said Street Vendor Project Director, Mohamed Attia, referring to last year’s City Council bill, an older version of which was first introduced under former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s leadership. Organizers first launched their “Lift the Caps” campaign back in 2014, he added, saying the Council law also failed to address the general vendors’ cap and didn’t open a pathway for anyone to become a legal street vendor.

In addition to formalizing other standards for the industry—including taxes, rules and regulations, and the training needed to obtain a license—the legislation would vacate past convictions for street vending offenses. This last point would be life-changing for the thousands of immigrants who are part of the nearly 20,000 vending entrepreneurs working in New York City, since an NYPD criminal summons can have negative consequences for vendors with immigration cases.

Immigration judges could consider past arrests/convictions for things like unlicensed or unpermitted vending as part of their discretion in awarding immigration status, advocates explained. In 2021, NYPD issued 41 criminal court summonses for vending-related offenses, city data shows.

The legislation, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, would also require regulatory oversight be provided by a civilian agency. In the city, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) took over the street vendor inspection and enforcement functions previously performed by the NYPD more than a year ago, though police are still involved in some cases and still issuing tickets, City Limits’ reporting found.

Black market for general licenses

Reforms for New York street vendors are long overdue, advocates and vendors say, particularly in New York City, where the diverse industry has long operated in the shadows because of strict limits on the number of vendors who are legally allowed to operate.

“Four decades ago, an arbitrary cap on business licensing transformed New York’s smallest businesses into criminals. Now, as New York State moves into a period of economic recovery, we must bring our smallest businesses—street vendors—into the formalized economy, and finally the ability to access business licensing,” said Attia.

In 1979 the city implemented a cap on the number of general merchandise licenses and mobile food vendor permits in the city. Advocates say this created a punitive system in which vendors were forced to either rent an underground-market permit from existing permit-holders or vend without a permit because there were not nearly enough to meet the demand.

Four decades later, there are currently only 853 licenses available for non-veteran general vendors, and a waitlist of 12,000 New Yorkers long. General vendors can sell or lease goods or services other than food or those items sold by first amendment vendors who sell newspapers, magazines, CDs, books, and art. The only exception to the limit imposed decades ago is for certain veterans residing in New York State, or their surviving spouses/domestic partners.

The demand for general vendor licenses is so out of proportion, advocates explained, that the waitlist itself has been closed for new applications for nearly a decade. When it briefly reopened in 1993, over 5,000 New Yorkers were added to it. In 2016, the waiting list reopened for less than a month and nearly 10,000 New Yorkers applied.

By Taba