City Moves to Increase Number of Street Vendor Licenses

Agustina Vázquez and her husband Miguel de la Cruz sell ice cream on West 125th Street in Harlem. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Agustina Vázquez and her husband Miguel de la Cruz sell ice cream on W. 125th Street in Harlem. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For years, Heleodora Vivar has been dodging the police to avoid being fined every time she sells her products on the street. Vivar would like to have a license and work within the law but, to her outrage and that of other food vendors in New York, the city stopped issuing new permits in 1979. So far, their options have been limited to either breaking the law or renting the licenses in the black market from people who have one, for which they pay up to $25,000 per year. The original fee is $200.

After a long fight to demand that the rules change and for more licenses to be issued to food vendors, the City Council has finally listened to part of their requests, announcing that it will introduce a bill on Thursday to grant 635 licenses per year for the next seven years and improve the regulations governing this matter.

“After so many years of struggle, it’s about time that they started taking us into account and treating us like real human beings who have the right to work honorably and in peace,” said 73-year-old Vivar, a Mexico native, when she heard about the initiative, which also intends to create a special office with a dedicated team of supervisors to manage food vendor affairs.

While the project will duplicate the estimated 3,500 licenses currently in existence, Vivar pointed out that the number continues to be insufficient, as nearly 20,000 vendors are believed to be operating in the city.

“I hope that the Council will take this proposal into consideration, even though it isn’t really the one we wanted. We were asking them to make permits and licenses for everyone; not just for food vendors but also for people selling other merchandise in the street,” she said. “That’s why we’ll stick to our guns, because the struggle continues.”

The bill was introduced by Council member Mark Levine and has the support of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council members Rafael Salamanca, Eric Ulrich, Margaret Chin, I. Daneek Miller and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. It will also grant 35 additional licenses per year to veterans and people with disabilities.

Agustina Vásquez, an ice cream vendor working in Harlem, asked the City Council to approve the law as soon as possible. “It is urgent for us to obtain licenses because the fines are drowning us,” she said.

“This law has two purposes: Creating a unit to reinforce street vendor laws through an office with its own staff and budget, and increasing the number of licenses, which for decades was around 3,500. The latter will expand an economic sector that has always belonged to immigrants,” said Council member Levine, who admitted that lacking a license has left many vendors vulnerable to abuse.

“The current situation is problematic for everyone because, on the one hand, there aren’t enough licenses to go around, which means that many vendors are forced to go into the black market and pay between $20,000 and $30,000 due to the scarcity. On the other hand, the police department is not enforcing the current laws, and there are many areas where large numbers of vendors don’t have a license and they may create problems for pedestrians and real state owners,” Council member Levine explained that even undocumented vendors will be able to apply for these licenses, as disclosing immigration status is not required during the application process.

City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito admitted that the contributions of street vendors have been ignored for many years and that the restrictions imposed on new licenses have greatly affected an industry that creates jobs.

“Street vendors add vitality to our streets and are an untapped economic resource,” she said. “Street vending serves as an entry point into the city’s economy for low income New Yorkers and has created thousands of jobs, while serving millions of meals from every cuisine imaginable.”

The political leader added that the new legislation aims to increase opportunities to start a business for vendors while allowing the city to regulate their operations in a more orderly fashion.

“Street vendors have been targeted with inconsistent enforcement and shaken down by unscrupulous permit holders who currently control access to the limited pool of vending permits,” said the speaker.

The initiative, expected to be approved before the end of the year, will also reinforce the law to relieve overcrowding in areas such as Times Square, Ground Zero and 34th Street.

Evangelina Lopera, who sells tacos and corn esquites in Astoria, said she was pleased with the new law, adding that she hopes the distribution of the licenses will be done in a fair manner.

“It would be great if they gave them first to people who have been doing this for years like me, not for three or four people to grab them all and then start renting them out like they’ve done until now.”

If approved, the initiative will only cover food vendors and will not include people selling other types of products.

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