October 2016 is a milestone in the history of street vending in New York City. On October 13th, Council Member Mark Levine announced the introduction of the Street Vending Modernization Act and on October 26th, hundreds of street vending advocates testified at the City Hall Hearing in favor of the Act. As its name suggests, the SVMA will tackle the outdated and problematic practices both street vendors and New York City have been struggling with for decades.
In 1983, the Koch administration capped the number of permits at 3,000 per year,* a number that is still in effect today and which is not nearly enough to accommodate the more than 10,000 food vendors who operate in the city every day. Additionally, the laws and regulations have become so complicated with every revision of the Administrative Code of the City of New York that the actual governing of street vending has come to relate on uninformed, trial-and-error and even biased enforcement. According to Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who is in favor of the SVMA, “this has created disorder across the City.”**
The disorder Ferreras-Copeland refers to is multi-faceted: it deals with the informality of unlicensed vendors, the black market in permits, the inconsistent and even repressive policing, complaints about the congestion of busy streets, claims from Business Improvement Districts about pushcarts stigmatizing and devaluing neighborhoods, and protests from brick-and-mortar store owners about being put out of business by unlicensed vendors who don’t pay taxes. However, street vending has its perks too, as it allows low-income families – mostly migrants – easy access to economic activity ($78.5 million in wages in New York in 2012), it creates much needed jobs (17,960 jobs in New York in 2012), and it contributes to vibrant local economies ($82 million value added in New York in 2012).*** Additionally, food vendors enrich New York’s foodscape and offer workers, students and tourists a wide variety of affordable meals.
The way I see it, the SVMA aims at rectifying the disorder by meeting the demands of both street vendor advocates and adversaries/skeptics.
1) The Act will double the number of permits over the course of the next seven years, which is a victorious accomplishment for the Street Vendor Project – an NGO that provides legal representation to street vendors and that has been rallying for more permits since 2001, arguing from the viewpoint of street vending’s economic capacity.
2) Street vending will still be restricted to certain areas, but clear signs and an app will help vendors determine whether or not their preferred location is food-cart friendly. Interestingly, the spatial restrictions do favor congested areas and supermarkets, making sure food carts don’t mingle with busy traffic and, to a certain extent, the brick-and-mortar foodscape.
3) A Street Vendor Advisory Panel will examine the laws and regulations currently in effect and will streamline the outdated rules. It will also oversee the permits and applications.
4) An Office of Street Vendor Enforcement will have to implement the laws and regulations, and make sure they are respected by the street vendor community and other interested actors (I think of brick-and-mortar store owners and Business Improvement Districts that sometimes play out the regulatory haziness to their own advantage, in an attempt to get food carts out of their sight).
As said, the SVMA is a milestone in the history of street vending in New York. What does strike me, however, is that in the discourse as it is now, street vending and food vending have become synonyms. But what about the merchandise vendors? In 1978, the Koch administration capped the number of merchandise permits to 853 and the waiting list is so long that it has been closed in 1992. Also, the SVMA will allow food vendors to use the kitchens in public schools to prepare their street food. Did the law-makers consider using food carts to solve the problem of school lunches? Having raised these questions, I do very much support the progress the SVMA wants to implement and I am looking forward to more.
* This figure refers to the cap on permits introduced under the Koch administration in 1983. There are more permits in summer and for veterans, amounting to an estimated 4,235 permits per year.
** New York City Council, ‘New York City Council to Introduce Street Vending Modernization Act’, 11 October 2016.
*** Dick M. Carpenter II, Upwardly Mobile. Street Vending and the American Dream (Arlington: Institute for Justice, 2015).
Dick M. Carpenter II, Upwardly Mobile. Street Vending and the American Dream (Arlington: Institute for Justice, 2015).
Ahmad El-Najjar, ‘Light at the End of Tunnel for NYC Food Trucks’, Townsquared Blog, 12 October 2016.
Mark Levine, ‘NYC Council Member Levine and Hundreds of Street Vendor Advocates Rally at City Hall for License Expansion, Enforcement Improvements’, 11 October 2016.
Ramon Murphy & Sung Soo Kim, ‘Don’t Let Street Vendors Run Wild’, Crain’s New York Business, 18 August 2015.
New York City Council, ‘New York City Council to Introduce Street Vending Modernization Act’, 11 October 2016.
Street Vendor Project’s website.
The Editorial Board, ‘Good News for the Hungry City‘, The New York Times, 24 October 2016.