color photo of an outdoor protest where people hold up white and yellow paper signs in chinese and english in support of new york city vendors
(Hafeezat Bishi)

Carlos Flores has been a Peruvian jewelry vendor in Jackson Heights, Queens, since 2019. Flores came to the U.S. from Peru in the ’90s and worked hard to make a living by creating and selling his handmade pieces from his storefront in 2006. After three years, he had to switch careers as rent prices for a storefront became too much for him to pay. He began to work as a fitness instructor at a gym full time but started to sell his jewelry again to supplement his income. 

“[Street vending] was an option for me to promote my art, my jewelry,” said Flores, who is unlicensed. “It’s basically like being at home. Whatever problems I have, one of the solutions was to go sell. When I’m selling I forget about everything.” 

Street vending is a pathway toward self-sufficiency for vendors like Flores. It’s a way for them to share talents with their communities, whether in art, food, or literature. But that pathway has been littered with roadblocks for the last several years. With no assurance of change, vendors are advocating for the restructuring of a system that has left them vulnerable to persecution. 

The Department of Health (DOH) is eight months behind on its promise to issue 445 new licenses each year over the next 10 years. The department told Prism they “notified approximately 10,000 vendors who were on the supervisory license waiting lists and provided an FAQ about the program.” They said they plan to issue license applications by the end of the month. 

But even when the applications are made available, there still won’t be enough licenses to account for all the vendors in the city. There currently are more than 20,000 vendors working in New York City, and a large portion are without licenses. Half of them are currently on waiting lists, but only 4,450 will receive applications over the next 10 years based on the new law. That leaves more than 5,000 others on the waitlist, putting thousands more who aren’t in limbo. Some on the waitlist have lost hope that they’ll receive proper licensure. Without a license, they risk receiving hefty fines, having their goods confiscated, and being summoned to court

“To this day, I’ve been waiting so long,” said Calvin, who asked to only use his first name. Calvin is a 61-year-old vendor from Harlem who’s been vending the majority of his life and has yet to receive a license or permit. “I don’t even know if I’m even on the list. Nobody should be on a waitlist for 15 years, for 10 years. It just doesn’t make sense.” 

Supervisory licenses allow vendors to apply for one permit and are the only way mobile food vendors can get a year-round permit. Some licenses apply to the entire city, while others allow you to only vend in a specific borough. 

To obtain one, vendors must be on a waiting list and wait for their position number to be reached, and the license only applies to mobile food vendors. For vendors like Flores, who sell merchandise and other goods, general vendor licenses are available, but for non-veterans, the number of licenses is capped at 853.

On March 16, vendors, allies, and community organizers picketed outside of City Hall to call for the City Council and the mayor to eliminate the system that has prevented thousands of vendors from leading an honest life and career.

“We have tens of thousands of vendors waiting for an opportunity to formalize their business to get into the system,” said Mohamed Attia, the executive director of the Street Vendor Project. “Nobody wants to break the law. No vendor wants to break the law, but they are forced to by our outdated laws.” 

The protest was colored by chants in multiple languages, from Wolof to Chinese, demanding that the city “cut the red tape.” Vendors shared stories of their plight and desires to continue vending without fearing arrest or seizure of their goods. 

“It’s traumatizing and heartbreaking when you spend your savings and all your time preparing your merchandise or cooking what you sell just for the health department to come alongside with NYPD to dump or confiscate your merchandise into a garbage truck,” said Guadalupe Sosa, a vendor from Harlem. 

Sosa has been a vendor for 10 years, but before she joined the ranks, she had been tagging along with her mother, also a vendor, for her whole life. 

“We are not a public safety issue,” Sosa said. “We are vendors, and we are what makes New York City great.” 

Sosa’s sentiments are an indirect response to politicians who see street vendors as unregulated safety issues in their communities. Recently, Councilmember Sandra Ung, who oversees the Flushing neighborhood in Queens, stated that vending in the neighborhood “creates a sense of lawlessness” and is calling for increased enforcement. Her statements have been viewed as her siding with brick-and-mortar business owners, who’ve expressed discontent with the number of vendors selling on the street. 

(Hafeezat Bishi)

City Limits, however, reported in early March that despite the shift of vending enforcement to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), NYPD issued 53% more tickets to street vendors in 2022 than it did in 2019. DCWP issued an additional 1,804 tickets.

When asked about the NYPD’s role in enforcement, the DCWP said that “DCWP enlists support from NYPD in areas with significant and repeated noncompliance, including in locations where inspectors have been threatened with violence,” and that even though street vendors are a “vital part of New York City’s economic landscape … everyone must follow the City’s rules and laws.” 

Fortunately for street vendors, they are not without support from the city. At the March 16 protest, several politicians joined vendors, including NYC Councilmembers Shekar Krishnan, Oswald Feliz, Shahana Hanif, and Tiffany Cabán. The members are representatives of neighborhoods like Jackson Heights in Queens and Fordham in the Bronx that host hundreds of vendors and have large populations of immigrants and people of color. 

In the New York State Assembly, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas reintroduced her bill at the beginning of the new session, which accompanies the bill state Sen. Jessica Ramos proposed in 2021 and would require New York City to create an equitable street vending licensing program, forbid the city from capping the number of street vendor licenses it can issue, expunge all street vendors’ records, and more. 

“The street vendors of New York City, including the ones I represent in my district in Queens, are some of the most industrious, dedicated members of our community,” González-Rojas said. 

The push for these laws continues in the state government, but there has been a shift to the enforcement of vending in the city. On March 20, city officials announced that, starting in April, the DCWP would no longer oversee the enforcement of street vending and that the responsibility would shift to the Department of Sanitation.

Vendors already have a strained relationship with the city’s sanitation workers, who have taken merchandise, produce, tables, and more from them and have forced vendors to watch their items be crushed in the backs of garbage trucks. Mayor Eric Adams framed the shift in enforcement as a quality of life concern.

The constant shuffle from department to department, especially to departments that are not particularly equipped to deal with the complexity of street vending, leaves vendors confused as to exactly whom they should go to with their concerns. The shift also leaves them vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence and at the mercy of a bureaucracy that claims to want to assist them, but is ultimately making things more difficult. 

“The four demands that the Street Vendor Project is asking for are more licenses, streets to be opened up, vendor education about the laws, and also open up small business services to small business vendors,” said Nova Felder (also known as Nana Asare), a First-Amendment vendor from Queens. Since his goods are protected under the First Amendment, Asare does not need a permit to sell, but he came out in support of those who are without one. Other vendors shared similar thoughts on education.

“They should help us to do our own business,” said Ramatu Baba, a vendor who immigrated to Harlem from Ghana. “They should help us to have a good location. They should come and teach us how to comport ourselves on the street.” 

As the vendors went to City Hall advocating for their rights during the protest, in Jackson Heights, Queens, a vendor was getting the purses she was selling confiscated by NYPD and inspectors.

“They’re taking a lady’s purses, the police, and inspectors,” Flores said. “We’re trying to see if they’re going to continue or not. If they do, we’ll pack up before they can take our stuff.” 

The inspectors stayed, so Flores and his colleagues had to pack up their items and run. 

Hafeezat Bishi is a freelance journalist, social media professional, journalism graduate student, and content creator. Her work centers around the discussion and advocacy of underserved communities. You...