Councilman Mark Levine on the Street Vending Modernization Act

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New York City has a population of 8.4 million people, 24,000 eating establishments with 8,000 of them being restaurants, and these numbers are always growing. But there is one type of vendor that doesn’t get the freedom to grow. NYC has had street vendors since the birth of this city and has capped the amount of vendors for the past 36 years.

Now with the Street Vending Modernization Act the wheels are in motion to bring street vending to the 21st century and end this restrictive cap on something so popular. “In an age of relentless gentrification street vendors have become the ultimate Mom and Pop,” said Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine. Total Food Service had the pleasure of chatting with Councilman Levine to discuss this act and what it is going to mean for street vendors.

Why is the Street Vending Modernization Act so important for NYC?

Well, the status quo is not working for anybody. Enforcement of existing rules have been haphazard and inconsistent. We’ve got an artificial cap on the number of permits, which has created a large black market in permits. And we have many thousands of vendors who are on the streets without a permit at all. And they’re not subject to any of the normal kinds of city inspections for health and safety, etc. It’s just long overdue that we upgrade the rules around this sector. Very little’s changed since the 1980s. And we think that by creating the first ever dedicated enforcement unit, coupled with a very gradual increase in the number of permits over seven years, we will both bring More compliance to the 15 rules. And we help starve the black market of permits over time.

Is there any concern the permits will have on the restaurants in NYC?

First I have to point out it’s very gradual. The first year will be focused on enforcement alone. Then it would be a small increase phased in over seven years. The biggest problem that brick and mortar stores currently face regarding street vendors, the law’s not being enforced. When you travel around the city’s most congested commercial strips. You see that often the great majority of vendors don’t have permits, so they’re vending in a way that’s not allowed under the law. We need to enforce better That better enforcement is gonna bring more order onto the busiest commercial streets that’ll benefit pedestrians, brick and mortar stores. Ultimately vendors want to work under the rules so by putting a few more permits out there we’ll give them the chance. The total amount of vending on any given street might actually drop once you clearly enforce any existing rules.

Are the fines for illegal vendors going to increase with this act or is strictly the enforcement aspect?

The cost of a permits are going to increase from $400 to $1,000. Compared to what vendors are paying the black market, which could be $25,000, that’s still a relatively modest sum. The dollar value of the fines is not adjusted in this legislation. The creation of a Dedicated enforcement unit, would like to resolve in more fines being issued at least in the short term. The vendors I talked to who really are experiencing the greatest anxiety, are those who don’t have a permit. They very much want to work under the existing System. They want to get a permit and are happy to pay for it. This is the balance that we’re putting forward here would, we think, crack down on illegal vending.

Why does NYC have this cap and why does it stay so low at 4,235?

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It was put in place in a different era, back in the 80s. When there was, there very few limits on the industry at all. What is harder to explain is why it’s never been adjusted as the city has grown. Its commerce has grown. Its tourism has grown. Interest in street food has grown. Look at almost any other similar sector, whether it’s taxi medallions, there’s been a growth in the number of permits issued on medallions because of a need to the city. As our population is approaching 9 million and tourism is hitting Close to 60 million a record high. The demand for street food is as great as ever. If it can be done within the system in which there is strong enforcement, which is the very key, key point to make. Then I think this will be a win for everybody. I went to Brick and Morter stores to get the better and more consistent enforcement they’re seeking so desperately. I went to vendors who many of them do wanna comply with the rules, and I went for the public to be able to continue to get quick affordable food from around the world. Which is what more and more New Yorkers want every day. Now I estimate this increase will be around 600 vending permits per year. Plus the small additional set aside for veterans and the disabled. So it’s 1135 total per year.

Will this act have any impact on where these vendors will be allowed to locate?

Look at Time Square now. Sometimes we can’t even walk on the sidewalk, it’s so congested. So that scenario where clearly we think some reconfiguration is warranted. I’ll point out that Places like Times Square, 34th street, often the majority of the vendors and have some food they’re selling, so called 1st amendment protected, such as Books, music, the caricature artists, courts have ruled that these are first amendment protected activities and so we have much fewer tools available to us in regulating and limiting that activity. However the courts have upheld that if you offer alternative sites, it is acceptable to relocate even First Amendment vendors.  We are offering some promising opportunities for the most crowded commercials area in the Manhattan core but also in the outer boroughs.

Is there any real concern on the carbon footprint this increase will have?

Focus on the grilling as an emitter of pollutants. To my knowledge, the administration has not made any effort to limit backyard grilling or any other form of barbecuing in the city, which is something that’ll be vastly more numerous than the number of street vendors who are grilling on any given day. Furthermore, the error code applies to vendors the same way it applies to brick and mortar stores. You gotta have a hood that absorbs smoke coming out of the grill, so perhaps some amount can escape beyond that, but these hoods are designed to capture most of it. To me, that seemed like a fairly proliferate factor to consider. And regardless, and force of it matters here as well. Our case is people who just set up barbecues on the sidewalk with no hood or anything, and that’s clearly against the rules. These folks are not licensed or permitted and we’re not enforcing that as much as we should. We will once we have this dedicated enforcement unit. So, I actually think that in a world in which we’re enforcing the laws and we remember that all vending units have to have hoods over the grills.

Why are street vendors so important to NYC?

Well, street vending has been part of this city since the moment New York came into existence. For generations, it’s been a vehicle to business ownership and entrepreneurship for wave after wave after wave of immigrants. Some of the best-known stores in the city began their lives as street vendors. This is as true today as ever, thousands of are hurting their livelihoods. Honest work, and New Yorker’s are responding more than ever. We just have to make sure that commercial districts are not overly congested by this, that Brick and Morter stores are not subjected to anything outside the law right off their doorstep. If we can do that, then this will be a win both for brick and mortar stores, street vendors, not to mention the general public and that’s the balance that we’re seeking.