Street Survival for NYC Vendors

Jan 6, 2017

NYC street vendor Doris Yao
Credit Topher Forhecz for WBGO

The New York City Council may double the number of food vendors allowed on city streets. Proponents of the plan say the current cap on vending permits is outdated… And increasing it will hurt a black market that charges vendors thousands of dollars. But, critics of the plan worry adding more vendors could crowd public spaces. When Doris Yao immigrated to New York City in 1981 from Taiwan, she noticed there were not a lot of choices when it came to street food.

"Most of the food cart is a hot dog. Pretzel, and peanuts and soda and that’s it. They have nothing and I said ‘oh one day if I have the chance I want to show you how good the Chinese food is."

That day did come. Yao bought her first food carts in 2010. Now, she has three. On a cloudy December morning, one of her carts is setup in lower Manhattan. Inside, an employee works the grill.

“He’s cooking noodle, the lo mein…”

On the outside of the cart - away from pictures of pot stickers and hot and sour soup – is a permit. It allows Yao to operate her food cart. But, that permit doesn’t belong to her. She rents it from its owner. The regular price to renew a food vending permit for two years in New York City is $200… but Yao says vendors like her are paying anywhere from $18 to $22 thousand dollars to rent permits. It’s become so pricey that she had to stop running one of her carts.

“The price go up higher and higher, and one day I was fighting with one of the permit owners they said give this much money on the table // I have the guts to say goodbye to them … and I have one cart stuck in my warehouse.”

The reason vendors pay thousands to rent out these permits is because there is a limited number. The city set a cap in the early 1980s at about 3,000 permits.  This created a black market over the years. The original permit owners saw there was a demand, and so they raised the price to rent them out.  The City Council wants to weaken that black market by more than doubling the number of permits over seven years.

“For far too long these street vendors have suffered from this black market and basically what my colleagues and I are saying is it's time to move forward enough is enough.”

That’s city councilman Rafael Salamanca of the South Bronx. He’s one of the bill’s sponsors.

“When you're talking about getting a permit for two hundred dollars and making thirty thousand dollars in a two year span. I think that's abusive // The people that are out there selling are probably immigrants that are coming from other countries, and you’re abusing them.”

Neighborhood groups are concerned newly permitted vendors will flock to already congested areas.Ellen Baer is co-chair of the NYC BID Association. The organization represents 72 neighborhoods across the city. She says she wants the city to outline a specific space on the street where a food vendor could operate... And Baer also wants the chance for the community to give input.

“When you get a sidewalk cafe permit or you have to get a newsstand permit. There's local review involved and we think there needs to be some sort of mechanism for local review // This is a land use issue, we believe, and land use almost always as far as I know in New York City has local review."

Baer says she’s also concerned about vending enforcement. She says currently it’s nonexistent.

"It's confusing for the vendors. It's confusing for the people who are enforcing it. There are multiple agencies doing enforcement. Nobody's really certain of what the rules and regulations are.”

The proposal would create a vending enforcement agency… And sponsors say the legislation would also bring in vendors who are operating illegally. But, Baer says she would like to see guarantees from the council about stronger enforcement before they start handing out more permits.

“We like to say that they're putting the vending cart before the proverbial horse.”

Back in Manhattan, food vendor Doris Yao says she enjoys her work. She says she likes people watching and...

“The most make me happy is people coming to say ‘Oh the food is so good.’ I like to hear that.”

But, she also says street vending is hard work, and expanding the number of permits would hurt the black market and help vendors like her.

Yao says if you’re working the food cart, you should own the permit.