A Food Vendor Protests the City’s Permit Cap

Doris Yao distributing free dumplings (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

Doris Yao distributing free dumplings (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

Doris Yao, the founder of “A-Pou’s Taste,” a pushcart business that focuses on Taiwanese street food, set her cart on the street in front of City Hall on Oct. 7, and handed out fried dumplings to the passersby for free. Yao was not turning her business into a charitable food kitchen. Accompanied by advocates from the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, she was trying to call attention to the city’s rigid permit cap for street vendors and mobilize public support to make a change. Yao said she would like to concentrate on her business rather than participate in advocacy activities. But she, like many other street vendors, has to lease a permit on the black market thanks to the city’s policy. And the costs, going up quickly, could soon cause the closure of the business.

The city has limited its permits for street vendors to 5,000 (including two-year permits and seasonal ones) since the early 1980s. But the growing population in the city means more and more new immigrants have to make a living in this field. The huge gap between demand and supply of permits leaves many street vendors struggling.

According to a newly released report by the Institute for Justice, street vendors contribute a lot to the city’s economy. In 2012, street vendors in New York City created 17,960 jobs, paid $192.3 million in wages, $71.2 million in taxes and in total accounted for nearly $300 million of the city’s economic output. But the report also pointed out that the city’s permit cap has largely suppressed the industry. “This cap has kept countless would-be vendors out of business and forced others to operate illegally,” the report says.

Yao, 58, is one of the street vendors who has been left in limbo. Yao, who emigrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, started her American life by working in the garment industry at first, and then, opened her own garment factory. The financial crisis in the late 1990s plus her own health problems as well as some other family reasons prompted her to make the decision to close the factory. But being used to a busy life, Yao didn’t want to retire so soon. “When things got better, I wanted to start another business. I noticed the pushcarts in New York mainly sell hotdogs and pretzels. There was no Taiwanese food. So I decided to bring Taiwanese food to the streets in New York,” said Yao.

Five years ago, when she saw an advertisement for a secondhand pushcart, Yao purchased it and started her new business full of ambition. She never expected to be thwarted by the permit cap from the beginning. “My biggest mistake is that I jumped into the industry without conducting full research. I found out that it is impossible to get a permit after I jumped in,” said Yao.

The city’s cap has helped to create a black market where the lucky ones who got their permits in the 1970s or 1980s rent them out to the newcomers. For many people who joined the industry in later years, this is almost the only way to get a permit. Yao leased the permit from the previous owner of her pushcart, at a cost of $12,000 for two years. Recently the price has jumped to $18,000. At one time, Yao’s business expanded to three carts. But because of the cost of the leases, she had to give up two carts and maintains the operation of only one. The permit lease for this one will expire next year, when she is expected to pay $21,000 to renew it.

“I won’t be able to afford it. But I would be really sad if I have to cease the business because of this. I really hope the city can understand this. I would rather pay a high application fee to the city than rent a permit on the black market,” said Yao, who handed out 1,000 dumplings to sympathetic passersby and asked for their support.

Elise Goldin, senior organizer at the Street Vendor Project, said the city hasn’t raised the cap in recent decades. It only takes back the permits from deceased vendors and redistributes them to new applicants. But the system doesn’t work. Applicants on the waiting list now have to wait for 15 to 20 years before their application is approved.

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