You are reading

Food Vendors Protesting at City Hall Say Things Are Worse After New Law Was Supposed To Make Them Better

Dozens of street vendors protest in lower Manhattan. As tickets mount, many vendors feel like they’re being punished by the Adams administration for not having a permit even as they have no way to get a permit. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Logo for THE CITY

This article was originally published by The CITY on Sept. 29

Street vendors angry about a long delay and a broken process for receiving promised new permits on top of what they say is a sharp rise in ticketing marched outside City Hall on Thursday.

The protesters, joined by a handful of City Council members, called for new laws to protect them and demanded better treatment from agencies in the Adams administration.

The number of food vending permits was scheduled to increase for the first time in decades on July 1, after legislation passed in early 2021 mandated 445 permits be released each year for the next 10 years.

That will eventually double the current number of mobile food vending permits, which had been capped at 5,100 for decades, leading many outdoor entrepreneurs to pay a steep price to work using someone else’s license.

The new law is supposed to annually create 100 permits that can be used city-wide, 300 limited to the outer boroughs, and 45 for disabled veterans.

But little has changed since THE CITY reported in mid-July that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), which oversees food cart licensing, had yet to make any new permit applications available.

Over the years, the scarcity of permits created an underground system, where vendors paid tens of thousands of dollars to lease a permit from its holder. That was supposed to change after 2021, with new legislation taking ticketing enforcement away from the NYPD and giving those vendors an opportunity to apply for their own permits.

Desperately Seeking Permits

Three months after those permits were supposed to be available, the Department of Health is still struggling to work out its process and, despite the new legislation, police are continuing to issue tickets.

“My history as a street vendor is beautiful but also stressful,” said Saraí Rodriguez, a 37-year-old who has been renting a permit for her Mexican food cart in Midtown for $20,000 for two years.

Rodriguez told THE CITY via an interpreter at the protest, where vendors chanted slogans in Spanish and English and mingled with one another before sharing churros at the end that one vendor shared from her cart. “I’ve spent most of my time as a street vendor not working for myself but working for somebody else.”

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rodriguez said she has never spoken to the person she’s leasing her permit from. Instead, she pays a broker, who collects a fee and delivers the remainder of the money to the permit owner. She doesn’t know how much money the broker keeps, but she knows the city-issued permit cost the owner $200 — or one percent of what she pays to use it.

“I always think to myself what would I be able to do if I wasn’t losing $20,000 to the permit owner,” said Rodriguez, a single mother. “It would mainly go toward the education of my oldest daughter, who just started college.”

Mohamed Attia, a leader of the protest and the director of the Street Vendor Project, a group that advocates for vendors, said health department officials told him a few weeks ago that the new permit applications likely would not be released until 2023.

According to Attia, DOHMH said it is revamping its plan to roll out permits based on comments some vendors made during a public hearing on June 30 — the day before the permit applications were scheduled to be released.

During that hearing, some vendors voiced concerns over how the permits were going to be distributed.

Distribution Solution Needed

According to the rules DOHMH put forth, the first 100 people on the waiting list would be offered citywide applications and the next 300 people would be offered outer-borough applications. No vendor on the waiting list would have a choice regarding application type.

Vendors who have been working in the same location for years suggested creating two waitlists instead — one for citywide permits and another for outer-borough permits — so they could have a shot at working where they wanted to.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I’ve grown this customer base in Manhattan,” said Samya Eskander, a 66-year-old who’s been selling hotdogs and other foods before that on Canal Street for 15 years. Eskander testified at the hearing in June in favor of separate waitlists.

Speaking to THE CITY in Arabic this week, she added: “It doesn’t make sense for Manhattan vendors who’ve been here for over 10 years to get up and leave to go to a new borough. Every vendor should get to decide where they work.”

According to Attia, the DOHMH is taking this feedback into consideration and is working on creating two separate waitlists. To do this, they will reach out to vendors and give them 90 days to choose which waitlist they want to be on, he said.

“We were really frustrated,” Attia said. “We were like what happened? You guys had months to work on this.”

Asked about Attia’s claims, a spokesperson for DOHMH said, “We will comment when this is finalized.”

More generally, the spokesperson, who did not agree to be named, said, “We are working to finalize the rules, and applications will go out after the rules go into effect. The process is behind schedule, in part because we want to be responsive to the public comments we received on the proposed rules, and give this feedback the deliberation it deserves. We are working as quickly as we can.”

Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who attended the rally, told THE CITY that to her knowledge, the health department has not reached out to vendors since the law initially passed. Department officials are only now offering to engage with advocates, Hanif said.

“It hasn’t been transparent, and we’re looking to DOHMH to correct this and urgently begin issuing the new licenses,” she added.

‘Artificial Scarcity’

The delays come as 1,189 budget positions at DOHMH were unfilled as of June, giving it a 19.1% vacancy rate that’s the second highest percentage of any city agency or department as the city has struggled to fill open roles and, at times, to provide services related to those roles.

While vendors wait for the new permit applications, they are experiencing a rise in ticketing.

Street vendors tape a list of demands to a wall at the city’s consumer and worker protection agency’s Lower Manhattan’s building. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The 2021 legislation transferred enforcement of street vending rules from the NYPD to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, but according to an analysis by City Limits, between June 1, 2021 and May 31, 2022, the first year since DCWP was supposed to take over enforcement, both agencies wrote tickets, collectively issuing 2,427 fines — 33 percent more than in 2019.

In statements to THE CITY, both agencies acknowledged their partnership, with DWCP saying it “is committed to an education first approach to vending that includes the opportunity to comply before issuing violations” and that it ”enlists support from NYPD in areas with significant and repeated noncompliance, including in locations where inspectors have been threatened with violence.”

But as tickets mount, many vendors feel like they’re being punished by the city for not having a permit even as they have no way to get a permit.

“The city has created an artificial problem of scarcity by limiting the number of licenses,” Councilmember Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens), who spoke at the protest, told THE CITY later in the day. “We made it more difficult for people to earn a living and on top of that, we’re increasing enforcement on them.”

Other councilmembers in attendance included Democrats Sandy Nurse and Christopher Marte of Brooklyn and Kristin Richardson Jordan of Manhattan.

Expressing frustration about the cap on permits and the increase in enforcement, protesters on Thursday hung banners outside DCWP, DOHMH, and the Department of Small Business Services, listing their demands.

They called on City Council to lift the cap on food vending permits altogether, end police enforcement, establish a division within SBS dedicated to vendor services and create more legal locations for vending.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), speaking at the protest, called out Mayor Eric Adams for falling short of his boasts about being business-friendly.

“Don’t just be a mayor for big businesses,” Ramos said. “Our smallest business owners are looking for dignity and the legalization of their businesses.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

email the author: [email protected]


Click for Comments 

Leave a Comment
Reply to this Comment

All comments are subject to moderation before being posted.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Recent News

Borough president hears from community members on budget needs throughout Queens

During a two-day public hearing on the mayor’s 2024 preliminary budget, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. listened to testimonies from 14 community board representatives, community stakeholders and members of the public on where the money should be spent in Queens. 

The public hearings were held both in-person and via Zoom on Monday, Jan. 30, and Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Queens Borough Hall. The testimonials will be used to develop the Queens Borough Board’s FY24 preliminary budget priorities in the coming weeks. 

‘He didn’t deserve to die’: Borough President Richards leads emotional candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards held a candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols outside Queens Borough Hall Monday, Jan. 30 after Nichols’ death at the hands of police officers in Memphis, Tenn., made national headlines for the brutality in which the officers beat him.

Almost immediately after news broke about Nichols’ death, the Memphis police officers who beat him to death were fired and charged with murder. The police department released the body cam footage of the fatal beating on Jan. 27, but many people, including some at the vigil, have refused to watch it due to its extremely graphic nature.

Op-Ed: This Year’s State Budget Must Prioritize Climate, Jobs, and Justice for New York

Op-Ed, Jan. 30, By Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas

In a time of rampant economic inequality and environmental injustice, it is easy to feel defeated.  Here in Queens and across New York State, however, communities are organizing for a better future. New Yorkers from different backgrounds and with different lived experiences are proving that we can build community, organize, and create a future that reflects our shared values.

BP launches new advisory panel for youth to become civically engaged in the future of Queens

In an effort to get more young people involved in civics, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards has created a new advisory panel known as the Youth and Young Adult Council to introduce the “youngest and fiercest” community advocates to both community service and organization.

Members of the advisory body will advocate concerns through means of community engagement by participating in one of two cohorts. The first will be made up of high school representatives between the ages of 13 and 17, while the second cohort will be comprised of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

Raga sworn in as first-ever Filipino American elected to the state Legislature

More than 300 community members attended the historic inauguration of Assemblyman Steven Raga as the first Filipino American elected to office in New York state.

Many who attended the swearing-in event at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park wore traditional and cultural attire to the event at the building that once housed the General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations from 1946 to 1950 until its current home in Manhattan became available for the world body.