Street Vendors Demand to Be Taken Seriously

Heleodora Vivar, a 72-year-old from Mexico, is one of the street vendors who will take part in the rally convening at 250 Broadway in Manhattan. She sells handcrafts on 177th Street and Broadway. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Heleodora Vivar, a 72-year-old from Mexico, is one of the street vendors who will take part in the rally convening at 250 Broadway in Manhattan. She sells handcrafts on 177th Street and Broadway. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

[Editor’s update: On Tuesday April 26, The Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, which has more than 2,000 members, held a protest to demand that the City Council provide a definitive response to their petition to increase the number of street vendor licenses and permits. The group also asked the authorities to stop the wave of fines to which vendors have been subjected.

Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Finance, said: “I see the way many street vendors fight every day to earn a living and be upright citizens. The fact that they are unable to access City permits has given way to a violent black market. We must modernize the regulations in order to attend their needs. As long these permits are restricted in this excessive manner, it will be hard to educate the vendors and build commercial corridors that allow the community to prosper.”

The story below was published prior to the protest.] 

Ms. Heliodora Vivar is almost 73 and, even though she would rather have a quieter life in her old age, she has not been able to because, she says, the City refuses to grant her a permit that would allow her to work on the street without fear of being fined.

Still very energetic but aware of the passing of time, the Guerrero native has spent years asking City Hall to increase the number of licenses or permits they grant street vendors and to create more spaces for them throughout the city. However, Vivar says that nothing has happened.

“I barely make $700 or $800 per month, carrying my stuff up and down to sell. Who can live on that?” said the Washington Heights resident. She has become an activist in the struggle to change the law that grants these permits, the number of which have been frozen since 1979.

“In the winter, I sell hats, and this time of the year I sell costume jewelry. But I cannot be at ease because I have no permit and they have already caught me and fined me before,” said the vendor. “If they gave me a license and opened more spaces for us to sell, life would improve for all of us and there would also be more order.”

The issue of licenses and permits has been on the table for many years, and organizations advocating for the rights of street vendors have grown tired of being given false hope.

“They have been telling us for months that they will change the laws, that they will give more permits and that they will help us, but nothing has happened. The only thing they do is continue to fine us, and we are forced to keep buying permits in the black market in order to survive,” said Colombian vendor Antonio Hernández, who sells food “under the table.”

That is why the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project – which has gathered more than 2,000 workers from this industry – organized a protest for Tuesday to demand that the City Council take effective measures once and for all.

“Due to an arbitrary limit on the number of permits issued to food street vendors and licenses for general merchandise, the merchants are forced to turn to the black market to rent permits that cost them up to $25,000 for 2 years,” said the organization. The fee for a legal permit is only $200. The group is promoting the event under the name “Vendor Power.”

El Diario spoke to a number of City Council representatives but, although they all said that the topic is being evaluated, no specific solutions were immediately offered.

“The City Council has taken the concerns of street vendors very seriously and has been working diligently to create legislation to respond to their needs without interrupting the city’s daily activities,” said Rafael Espinal, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs. “I hope that the Council will put its plan on the table before the end of the year.”

Meanwhile, Eric Koch, spokesman for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, said that the issue is still being studied. “The Council wants to create more opportunities for vendors, and we are weighing several options.” Ms. Vivar and her fellow merchants do not think this is enough.

“Because of my age, maybe they see me and have some compassion, but it’s time that they stop criminalizing us by fining us and that they come up with solutions. Take us seriously, please,” said the Mexican senior.

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