Vendors Blame Cap on Permits For So-Called ‘Mafia’

Scene from a part on St. Nicholas Ave., where street vendors work to make a daily living. (Photo by Jose Acosta/EDLP)

Last month, when El Diario La Prensa first reported on a “mafia” that rents out a license to street vendors without one, the immigrant vendors in the article described their situation as “modern-day slavery.” In the translation below of the publication’s more recent article on these rental arrangements, the vendors describe the situation in less critical terms, as more of an “informal agreement” that helps both sides, especially since many license-holders are older veterans. They say the bigger problem is a city regulation that caps non-veteran general vendor licenses at only 853, leaving thousands on a waitlist that is now closed and making it virtually impossible for non-veterans to obtain their own licenses.

Fruit, clothes, habichuelas con dulce (sweet beans), shoes, accessories… The streets of the Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan look like a tranquil flea market.

Based on the appearance of this place, no one would believe that the city of New York has a limit on the number of permits for selling goods on the street. But striking up a conversation with some of the vendors is enough to discover how this informal sector of the economy operates — and how the lack of licenses has created a kind of mafia, where those who hold the vending permits live at the expense of those who don’t, charging amounts between $70 to $150 a day.

Here, the vendors that don’t have a permit pay permit-holders, most of whom are veterans [who are able to obtain permits under special dispensations], so that they cover their backs when it comes to the police.

Carlos Belalcazar, a U.S. Army veteran, charges $70 a day to the street vendor Pedro Acevedo, 50, a costume vendor on St. Nicholas Avenue.

“I only charge $70 to help the vendor, but here, there are people who charge $150,” said Belalcazar. “Others charge a percentage of the sales to support the vendor with the permit.”

Acevedo, the owner of the business, doesn’t see his arrangement as like dealing with a mafia, but rather as “an association” in which the vendor has the most to lose because he has to work long days and carry the risks of the business. He blames the situation on the Department of Consumer Affairs, which has [a legislative cap on the number of non-veteran] General Vendor permits.

“We only have permits to sell [goods] in street fairs, but these don’t help us sell in the street,” said Acevedo.

Waiting for Godot

The problem, according to Sasha Ahuja, of the Street Vendors Project, part of the Urban Justice Center, is that for the past 80 years, there licenses or permits for street vendors have been hard to come by, and only veterans can get a general vendor license.

“Most are selling without a license, and that is not fair,” said Ahuja. “We have to fight so that the city gives out more permits.”

Ahuja didn’t characterize the arrangements between veterans and vendors as “a mafia,” but rather as an informal agreement, “because both need to survive.”

“Many veterans are older people who can’t walk or carry goods, and they have collaborated with these sellers so that they pay them $100 to $150 a day in exchange for the use of the license,” said Ahuja.

The maximum number of General Vendor licenses that the agency gives out for non-veterans is limited by law to 853, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs. The waitlist for non-veteran license applicants is currently closed, and it won’t open until the DCA finishes with the waitlist of non-veterans who have already applied.

The exception, according to the DCA, are veterans who have been honorably discharged or those who are a surviving spouse or a domestic partner to a veteran.

“They give us the license for free,” said war veteran Jose Madera, 70, who has a collaboration with Mexican Victoria Fernandez, a vendor who sells cards, hats and glasses on St. Nicholas Avenue. “But the problem of the permits creates a war among street vendors.”

War among vendors

Madera explained that when the avenue is full of vendors, those that have a license call the police to get rid of those that don’t.

Adding to the tension are storekeepers who complain about a lack of hygiene or unfair competition from the street vendors, and from pedestrians, who complain about the lack of space to walk. The number of complaints have prompted the police to remove all the street vendors along the commercial corridor on 181st Street and surrounding sidewalks.

One of those arrested in the operation was Jose Luis Elvir, 30, a costume vendor without a permit who made use of a veteran’s permit to operate. Elvir admitted that the police had warned him that they didn’t want him on 181st Street

“I went to the bathroom, but the man with the license wasn’t watching the post,” he said. “They arrested me and confiscated $1,000 in merchandise. Next month I have to go to court.”

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