EDITORIAL: Protect New York’s street vendors

Andrew Yang presented a dangerous and misleading narrative that unlicensed street vendors pose a threat to New York City. The opposite is true: City Council has failed the vulnerable, struggling vendors who make the city what it is.

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Suhail Gharaibeh

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s vow to crackdown on unlicensed food vendors in NYC was widely met with pushback across the board. (Photo by Suhail Gharaibeh)

By WSN Editorial Board

A recent tweet from mayoral candidate Andrew Yang recently made headlines, declaring “You know what I hear over and over again – that NYC is not enforcing rules against unlicensed street vendors.” 

He implied that, if elected, his administration would crack down on the city’s thousands of street vendors. While he later apologized for the tweet, his comment is indicative of the negative perception that people have about street vendors, most of whom are immigrants. Many unlicensed street vendors rely heavily on a steady stream of business from New Yorkers because they are ineligible for loans from the federal government.

New York’s street vendors deserve our respect, not scorn. New York State Senator Jessica Ramos proposed a bill that would remove arbitrary caps on the amount of food licenses that can be issued, solving the problem without cracking down on the city’s immigrant community. Bill S6817A would decriminalize and legalize every street vendor, which in turn would allow the Department of Health to inspect food vendors. During the next legislative session, the bill ought to be passed. 

The city government has only increased the cap for vendor licenses twice in recent history —  this January, and in the early 1980s. It’s no wonder, then, that there is a thriving black market for food cart permits. The resale value for a two-year license that ordinarily costs $200 dollars can reach heights of $25,000. As long as the licenses are scarce, the black market will continue to cut into the profits of unlicensed street vendors. There are currently 2,500 vendors who are on a waiting list for full-time permits — is it any wonder that there are so many unlicensed vendors? This problem is wholly a creation of the City Council, and now a man who seeks to lead the city government wants to double down on the errors of the past. This system has to end.

In his original tweet, Yang stated, “We should do more for the retailers who are paying rent and trying to survive.” Yang’s claim that there is somehow a tradeoff between supporting the unlicensed street vendor community and New York restaurants has no basis in reality. When street vendors were banned in the Lower East Side, stores claimed that the policy negatively impacted their business. 

Unfortunately, he is not alone in this incorrect line of thinking. A group of restaurant owners in Houston asked their city council to repeal or reform laws that make it difficult to establish street vendors, as they found that food trucks helped attract people to their neighborhood and significantly drove up business. Restaurant owners in Los Angeles experienced a similar situation, with food trucks in no way diminishing LA’s vibrant restaurant scene.

Functionally, vendors and actual restaurants serve different purposes in the city. Students know that they can count on the Mr. Softee truck around Washington Square Park, or one of the many hot dog carts, for a quick bite to eat between classes. Nobody is going to spend their fifteen minutes between classes sitting down in a restaurant and ordering a meal. The same can be said for people eating between work shifts Street vendors support local businesses by drawing customers to given neighborhoods, boosting foot traffic near brick-and-mortar stores. 

Let’s not forget that people have been detained for selling churros in our city. While Mayor de Blasio stripped the New York City Police Department of its vendor enforcement responsibilities in January, the newly empowered Department of Consumer and Worker Protections still has the power to shut down unlicensed street vendors. For many such vendors, food cart revenue is their only source of income. 

There are, understandably, concerns about the public health risks of unlicensed street vendor fare. If the city or state legislators eliminate the cap on licenses, then street vendors will be included in the city’s public health infrastructure.

Beyond economics, overaggressive policing is rooted in misguided ideas on what strengthens order in a community. Suggesting that the city ought to crack down on the unlicensed food vendor population is a classic example of broken-windows policing, harkening back to the days of Mayor Bloomberg. When it’s the government’s fault that not enough people can legally bring in their monthly income, it does not make any sense to penalize vendors for skirting the law. The unlicensed street vendor community is made up of entrepreneurs who want nothing more than to feed the city and, in doing so, their families. During a pandemic, when undocumented people have received little help from the federal government, we should not take away anyone’s main source of income. 

Politicians and residents of New York who claim to care about the city’s undocumented immigrant community ought to care about this issue. At a certain point, some of these unlicensed street vendors may have fed you. By supporting the passage of Bill S6817A and ending the criminalization of street vendors in the city, it shows that we respect the dignity and value of their work.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Apr. 26, 2021 e-print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]