Read this story in Spanish, courtesy of Paul Kelly Campos.
Back in May, street vendor María Falcon went viral after a video of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers accosting her in a Brooklyn subway station spread across social media. Though this was not the first time an event like this had occurred, Falcon’s experience sparked a response from Mayor Eric Adams. The mayor initially praised the officers’ actions but then shared his plan to reform vending regulations for the benefit of vendors and consumers alike.
“Street vendors are an integral part of New York City’s economy and give communities across our city their unique character,” Adams said in a press release announcing the reform. “These recommendations do just that by cutting red tape, creating new opportunities for street vendors to operate legally, and improving access to healthy food throughout the five boroughs.”
But Adams’ plans did not address the main issue: permit caps and licenses for vending. In 2021, New York City Council passed Intro 1116-B, a bill that would create 4,000 new permits for street vendors over the next 10 years. However, that is not nearly enough for the more than 20,000 vendors operating in the city. The process to get a permit also isn’t quick or easy; many vendors get stuck trying to meet documentation requirements due to lacking necessary items such as photo identification. Not being able to meet these requirements leaves many vendors with few alternatives.
Vending is deeply embedded in New York City’s history. It was lauded as essential work during the height of the pandemic, giving people new opportunities when other jobs shut down.
“During the pandemic, people who needed extra money opened up vending operations in order to make cash,” said Astrid Aune, communications director for New York State Senator Jessica Ramos. “The cap on [vendor] licenses creates a vulnerable population of microentrepreneurs.”
In 2021, Ramos proposed Senate Bill S1175B to legalize vending in New York cities with one million residents or more, though the initiative has not passed committees.
Vanesa, who is not using her full name for privacy reasons, is a vendor in Queens. The immigrant from Peru has been a street vendor for the last four years. “I used to clean houses, but then I worked with a man at his street cart. When spring of this year came, I began to work alone on the street,” she said.
Vanesa operates mainly in Corona Plaza, an area with a large population of licensed and unlicensed street vendors. When vendor numbers surged in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Corona Plaza also became the site of one of the city’s first local vendor associations. With the help of Street Vendor Project, a member-led organization that advocates for street vendor rights, vendors at Corona Plaza began to organize and self-govern. They elected representatives to facilitate disputes and adopted a community agreement to establish codes of conduct. Despite these efforts, the area is still a site of over-policing from the NYPD and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP).
“Right now it’s not so easy to sell because we don’t know when [the police] will arrive. Especially these past couple of months, they’ve been coming extra strong,” Vanesa said.
The vending reform plans Adams proposed back in May did not include anything to address the policing that disproportionately impacts Black and brown vendors throughout the city. In fact, under his administration, enforcement is on the rise. Back in 2020, in an attempt to ease concerns of targeted harassment by the NYPD, former Mayor Bill de Blasio transferred street vendor enforcement from NYPD to the DCWP. However, NYPD officers are still on the street alongside DCWP enforcement issuing tickets, sanitation violations, and more.
City Limits, a nonprofit newsroom based in NYC, reported in August 2022 that street vending tickets between June 2021 to May 2022 went up by 33% from 2019. The policy did nothing to quell the fears of unlicensed vendors who were afraid of having their goods seized or paying exorbitant fines that amount to a day or two of work.
Carlos Flores, an unlicensed Peruvian jewelry vendor in Jackson Heights, Queens, is a strong advocate for the vendors on his block. Like Vanesa, one of Flores’ biggest concerns is not knowing when inspectors will arrive in his neighborhood.
“[I]n the middle of the day, they just show up, and then you have to run,” he said. During Easter weekend, a holiday that many vendors look forward to for increased profit, unexpected inspectors forced Flores and other vendors to leave their posts.
Inspections aside, vendors also contend with potential property loss. Photos shared this June to NYC Vendor Voices’ Instagram, a page dedicated to telling the stories of vendors across the city, showed sanitation services throwing out vendor tables that were chained to bike racks, light posts, and other fixtures. Many vendors cannot afford paying for storage space, so they opt to leave their tables on the street. Situations like those that happened this summer force many vendors to spend money they don’t have on replacement furniture or other alternatives.
With challenges at every turn, vendors are left with few good options as the city falls behind on issuing permits to those in need. Despite the promises made by Intro 1116-B, many vendors continue to face work instability and the fear of penalization.
“I’m working so I can take care of myself,” said Sara Leon, a Colombian jewelry vendor on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights. “I want people to understand that we want to work, we want to make an honest living.”