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Food Carts Back on Council’s Front Burner

Lower Manhattan Vendor Ema Vergara piggybacks on a permit, taking only 40% of profits.
Lower Manhattan vendor Ema Vergara piggybacks on a permit, taking only 40% of profits. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Street food vendors who say they have little choice but to work without a permit are looking to the City Council to serve up some relief by more than doubling the number of legal slots.

A similar past effort failed. But now a hearing is set for Thursday on a fresh bill that would add 4,000 new permits to an existing 3,000 that authorize holders to sell food on most public sidewalks or streets.

“It would change my life to have my own permit,” said Ema Vergara, 47, a Wall Street peanut vendor who’s been on the waitlist since 2006.

Many vendors waiting for their shot to work legally operate without permits – absorbing $1,000 tickets and having their carts confiscated by city officials. Two-year permits that the city issues for $200 go for up to $25,000 in an underground market, vendors say.

The bill before the Council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing is “intended to end the cycle of disorder that forces too many vendors, particularly immigrants, underground,” said the lead sponsor, Councilmember Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan).

In all, 25 members of the 51-member Council have signed on as sponsors — likely enough to pass the bill, but not to survive a mayoral veto. City Hall did not immediately comment on the measure.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) is “monitoring this bill as it moves through the legislative process” and “supports expanding opportunities for street vendors,” said spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch.

A Long Waiting List

All of the existing 3,000 food-vending permits from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are spoken for. The waiting list only opens when permits become available.

That last happened in 2007: The list currently runs about 1,450 names, according to the Health Department.

Chin’s bill closely resembles a measure championed in 2016 by then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. That bill died without a vote at the end of Mark-Viverito’s term the following year.

City officials testified at the time that not enough cart-storage and cleaning facilities existed to accommodate the thousands of proposed new permits, and urged comprehensive study of the permit system before any expansion.

While more than doubling the number of available vending permits over the course of a decade, the bill would create a new class of non-transferable permits. The measure also proposes a street vendor advisory board and an Office of Street Vendor Enforcement.

Bill Faces Uncertain Fate

Sean Basinski, co-director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, said new permits would represent a breakthrough for vendors presently operating under threat of summonses for illegal selling.

“This bill would create about 4,000 new vending permits, which is not as many as are needed, but it is not an insignificant number,” said Basinski. “It will keep that number of vendors from getting $1,000 tickets and having their carts seized, and allow them to conduct their business in peace.”

While Vergara waits for her name to be called from the waitlist, she uses another person’s legal food cart, only taking 40% of each shift’s profits. The Chilean immigrant works 10-hour shifts, six to seven days a week, to support her son and her mother back home.

“It’s not fair that I am still waiting for a permit,” she said. “Are you going to give me a permit when I’m 65 and I can’t stay outside?”

A pile of new permits “would be a big victory for the vending community, but it will not be passed easily,” Basinski acknowledged.

Among continued opponents to the Council’s proposal is the Real Estate Board of New York, which according to a spokesman intends to submit testimony that “recommends the starting place for any reform be designing a system that provides all stakeholders with clear rules that can be enforced prior to any additional permits and licenses being issued.”

At a Wednesday panel hosted by the Street Vendor Project, Mark-Viverito said she believed the climate is now right for the bill, given the intensive focus on immigrant rights in the city and beyond.

“This is about entrepreneurship, this is about struggle, this is about survival,” she said. “The city belongs to every single one of us. We have to figure out how we can coexist.”

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Are you a food vendor or work with someone who is? What’s been your experience with NYPD, city officials or navigating the permit process? We’d like to talk to you. Call, text, WhatsApp or Signal us at 718-866-8674 or email us at workers@thecity.nyc.