For years, New York City’s street vendors faced numerous obstacles to earning a living. 

They made strides last year when then-Mayor Bill de Blasio passed the legislation Intro 1116, assuring that 4,000 additional permits would be issued. The responsibility for enforcing vendor regulations was also switched from the New York Police Department to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP). 

While the legislation was a historic moment for street vendors, it still fell short of making a huge impact. Here are the facts:

  • There are only 853 General Vendor licenses in circulation in all of NYC.
  • According to the Street Vendor Project, there are 20,000 vendors in NYC.
  • The legislation allows just an additional 400 permits to be available each year for the next 10 years.
  • There is no other way to get a permit. That has left roughly 12,000 people on a waiting list that opened up for permits 10 years ago.
  • The thousands of vendors in NYC who don’t have permits have essentially no way of getting permits. Some will be lucky enough to get one of the 4,000 permits over the next 10 years. 

Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

Without permits, vendors are getting tickets and fines that are attached to a criminal record. Although the DCWP is responsible for regulating street vendors, they are still getting tickets from the NYPD and are being abused through intimidation tactics. Vendors want more than the Intro 1116, so they continue their fight for new legislation.

Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Carina Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, and Sonia Perez, who has been a street vendor for 25 years. They explained why street vendors are continuing to fight for the state legislation S1175 and A5081

Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

What are S1175 and A5081?

Simply put, the S1175 and A5081 bills will “decriminalize” the street vending industry. It’s heavily regulated and even minor infractions like not showing their permit around their neck, result in criminal records because when street vendors are found without a permit they are ticketed and fined. The legislation supported by The Street Vendor Project and other advocates aims to accomplish the following: 

  • Ensure that street vending compliance and regulatory oversight are conducted by a civilian agency.
  • Formalize the street vending industry, creating a pathway to entrepreneurship by removing the currently insurmountable barrier to entry to the industry. Vendors who wish to do business in accordance with the law — including paying taxes, following city rules and regulations and completing all training — will be able to obtain permits to operate their business. 
  • Allow for the cancellation of past criminal convictions of street vending offenses.

Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

The dilemma with permits and licenses 

Decisions made more than 50 years ago regarding the number of permits issued are still affecting street vendors today. 

“Street vendors, for a very long time, have been subjected to outdated and discriminatory laws that essentially make it next to impossible for anyone who wants to become a street vendor within the last 10-20 years to become a street vendor in a way that the city considers legal,” Gutierrez said. 

During the 1970s, a cap was placed on the number of permits and licenses available to street vendors, both those who sell merchandise and food. During this time, powerful voices within the commercial real estate community opposed street vendors — an industry made up mostly of immigrants and people of color — and saw the presence of their stalls as something that was bringing down property values. 

Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

To legally sell on the street, vendors need a general vendor license, which is virtually impossible to obtain today.

“If you would like to be a general vendor, there is no way to do so, there’s absolutely no way to get a license,”  Gutierrez said. “There’s only 853 in circulation for all of New York City, and the waitlist itself, which has 12,000 names on it, has been closed for nearly a decade.”

When Intro 1116 was passed, it was a small step in the right direction, but it was still not enough. For street vendors like Perez, who does not have a permit, it was like a slap in the face. 

“What is this? They are laughing at us because there are more than 20,000 [unlicensed] street vendors in New York City,” she said. “They will designate 400 permits that will be given each year for 10 years for a total of 4,000 permits, for 20,000 vendors? That is not fair.”

Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

A never-ending cycle

Every time a vendor is found without one of the coveted permits they are at risk of being ticketed. Although Intro 1116 moved the enforcement from the NYPD to the DWCP, the number of tickets issued has not seen a significant drop. 

According to a recent analysis by Gothamist, DCWP issued more than 700 tickets to street vendors in 2021. Fines from these tickets range from $250 to $1,000. 

“What it does is it creates a cycle of debt. It traps people in a cycle of poverty,” Gutierrez said. “What do you expect a street vendor who doesn’t have a permit to do? They can’t fix their situation by getting a permit. They’re going to go back out and work, right, to try to make enough money to pay off that ticket. In the meantime, they may get another ticket for their work,” she added. 

Before the pandemic Perez used to make around $1,500 a week selling Mexican tamales and drinks like atole and champurrado in Brooklyn. Now, she says she feels lucky if she makes $300. If she were to receive a ticket, that’s a week’s pay. For vendors like Perez,  passage of  the S1175 and A5081 bills are more important than ever. 

Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

The abuse never stopped

While Intro 1116 made the switch to the DWCP, harassment street vendors faced from the NYPD didn’t stop.

“The issue is that the system of street vending is so complicated and so designed for vendors to fail,” Gutierrez said. 

She recalled the story of one of the Street Vendor Project’s members. This street vendor works in Hudson Yards and has gotten more than 30 tickets for minor and often ridiculous reasons. The caveat? He actually has a permit.

“The company that runs that complex does not like him there because they don’t think street vendors are part of the New York City they want. So they have private security guards who, every single day, call the NYPD on him, even if he’s doing absolutely nothing wrong,” Gutierrez said. “He got a ticket for not showing his mobile food vendor license across his neck in a visible way. He had a box on the ground because he was unloading things from his car and bringing them in. He got a ticket. So it’s a punitive system that exists even if you’re doing everything right.”

Still she said, he is lucky. Many vendors who don’t have permits risk having their food and merchandise thrown away by the NYPD.

Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

Benefits for vendors

By decriminalizing street vending, undocumented and unlicensed street vendors would not have to worry about tickets and fines affecting a path to citizenship, as past violations will be erased. By adding more permits, vendors will be able to operate legally, pay taxes and follow city rules and regulations. 

“I would like New York City to know that [street vendors] are hard-working people, and we want the opportunity to have our work be visible because street vendors are important,” Perez said. “Street vending is just as important as construction work or restaurant work. We are small businesses, but we are not seen.”

How you can help

Gutierrez says that the best way to help street vendors is to get your local leaders behind the S1175/A5081 bills. 

“The first thing they can do is pick up the phone and call their state senator and their state assembly member to ask them to support the legislation S1175 and A5081 and say you want street vendors to have a just system that they can operate with,” Gutierrez said. 

Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

The Street Vendor Project’s Instagram provides links where you can find your senator and assembly member as well as a sample script you can use. You can also support the Street Vendor Project by donating online

“The second thing they can do is just go out and support your local street vendor, always wear a mask, bring cash and tip. Support your vendor—just say, hey!” Gutierrez said.

For more information on the Street Vendor Project visit its website, and give a follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. You can also support Perez and her tasty tamales every weekend in Brooklyn, on Knickerbocker Ave between Jefferson and Troutman streets.

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