Unlicensed Street Vendors Fear Steep Fines as Enforcement Escalates

More than a year after fines for unlicensed street vending were largely suspended when the pandemic struck, enforcement has begun again. Many street vendors say it threatens their only means of economic survival.

Luis Feliz Leon   ·   July 21, 2021
Since the pandemic, many New Yorkers have turned to street vending to make ends meet | Luis Feliz Leon

During the pandemic-stricken months of April and May last year, after experiencing the sudden loss of restaurant and service jobs, immigrant workers were forced into employment in the informal economy to salvage their livelihoods. Some picked up contract work sanitizing trains during nightly shutdowns; some schlepped food via an array of food delivery apps. Others ventured to Corona Plaza, an open-air commercial hub in Queens underneath the elevated train tracks of the No. 7 line in one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus. Vendors brought their hustling acumen and homespun recipes to the diminished crowds at street corners, attempting to survive on a hand-to-mouth income.

After public pressure during the height of the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio eased enforcement of rules against unlicensed street vending, and rates of fines and penalties dropped precipitously. But in the last weeks, the number of fines has begun to rise again, even as many vendors say they are still struggling with the blows the pandemic has dealt to their industry.

Alex Yobany Guillén, 42, began selling masks at the plaza last May after losing his job at a restaurant. The income he earned helped him stay afloat, but he still fell behind on his rent, as he and his wife alternated staying at home to care for their 20-year-old daughter who fell sick with Covid-19.

“Before the pandemic, life was more comfortable. If I worked five days, I rested two. Now, I have to work every day to just survive,” Guillén said, standing on a corner of Roosevelt Avenue in the shade of the elevated tracks.

As the city bounces back from a plague year, white-collar workers return to their offices, and Mayor de Blasio hosts ticker tape parades honoring essential workers, Guillén wants to stay at the plaza despite the grueling hours. But he doesn’t have a vending permit and fears stiff fines from city agencies.

“We don’t want to be in the shadows; we want our work to be recognized as street vendors who provide a service to the community and promote the local economy,” Guillén said.

In June 2020, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced cops would no longer be in chargeof vendor enforcement, NYPD harassment and intimidation abated at Corona Plaza. Issuance of penalties declined in the second and third quarters of 2020 to single-digits per offense, according to NYPD statistics.

Alex Yobany Guillén has been selling masks since losing his job at a restaurant more than a year ago | Luis Feliz Leon

But one year later, the fines have dramatically spiked. Last month, Mayor de Blasio called for a crackdown on vendors without a permit following a shooting in Times Square. From June 1 to July 13, the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, the enforcement and coordinating agency for street vendors, conducted 433 vending inspections and issued 226 fines, according to a department spokesperson.

And police are still involved in responding to some vendor-related complaints. “While other City agencies are transitioning into vendor enforcement functions, the NYPD will continue to respond to 311 service requests and 911 calls related to vendors,” an NYPD spokesperson said.

In May, police officers issued multiple summons to vendors selling food on the sidewalk in front of the Hudson Yards development, which is public property and not owned by Hudson Yards, Gothamist reported. “This has nothing to do with us. They don’t want you on their property,” one officer told a vendor.

Restrictive Caps

For decades, the city has imposed caps on vending permits. With the citywide cap setat 5,100 food permits and 853 permits for general merchandise like Guillén’s masks, thousands of applicants are stuck on the waitlist. “We have members who wait between 10 and 20 years to get a permit of their own,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendors Project (SVP).

Even after securing a permit, vendors who do not speak English—which is the case for the majority of Latino street vendors, according to Kauffman-Gutierrez—face an additional obstacle. Since the $53 course required to obtain a license to sell food went virtual at the onset of the pandemic, it has been offered only in English. It’s unclear when in-person offerings in multiple languages will resume.

This year, the City Council has made efforts to address the bottleneck in vending permits. In January, after years of pressure from advocates, the Council passed legislation that expands the number of available permits by 4,000 over the next decade and makes permanent the recent shift of permit enforcement away from the police.

Large business owners and restaurant operators have opposed raising the cap, claiming vendors siphon dollars and customers from them. “If I sell tacos for $4.50 and a street vendor a block away sells tacos for $2.50, the people are going to go to the street vendor,” one restaurant employee told the Post.

The new permits will be issued to individual vendors rather than to a food cart or truck, a measure meant to eliminate the underground market for mobile food vendor permits. All existing permits will transition to the new format by July 2032.

The increase partially reverses restrictions the City Council imposed in the 1980s, slashing the number of permits from 12,000 to 3,000 and creating the now-flourishing underground market for licenses, in which a $200 two-year permit can fetch upwards of $30,000. But the increase is a far cry from what street vendor advocates say is necessary, as some estimates put the number of unlicensed vendors at as many as 20,000 citywide. Even with the expansion passed by the council, unlicensed vendors will still continue to hazard fines to make ends meet, advocates say.

Unlicensed Vendors Get Organized

As they wait for the chance to apply for one of the new permits, vendors at Corona Plaza are taking matters into their own hands, creating mutual support networks to manage competition and to dodge fines and police harassment. In the spring of 2020, pandemic-related unemployment drove a legion of new vendors into the plaza. Rather than joining the years-long waiting list for permits, they self-organized, electing four plaza representatives from among their own to mediate conflicts over space and serve as ambassadors to newcomers unfamiliar with existing city laws and the unwritten rules of street vending.

Guillén, the mask vendor, was elected as a representative, along with Mariela Vivar, who for the last three years has been stationed at Corona Plaza, selling traditional Mexican pottery that her family in Mexico wraps in newspapers and ships to her. With support from SVP, the vendors have mapped the plaza to create a system where vendors are spread out so as to minimize competition and diversify offerings.

Vicente Vivar, 55, no relation to Mariela, has been a street vendor for more than twenty years without a permit. “Hustling in the streets, always,” he said. He’s lived through it all—arrests, seized merchandise, and fines. But he’s not fazed by the additional competition brought on by the pandemic-driven surge in street vending. “We all need to survive. There are no jobs still. Here in the plaza, anyone can earn a few bucks to bring the bacon home,” he said.

Vendors at Corona Plaza offer a variety of Latin foods | Luis Feliz Leon

“There are a lot of vendors, but it’s all very well organized. The community is united. It’s become a tourist zone,” Vivar said, noting that customers travel from as far away as Passaic, New Jersey to get a bite of a traditional Mexican or Ecuadorian dish or a knickknack to remind them of their homelands. Not everyone is cut out for the winter cold or the slow days when nothing sells, he said. But for those who can stick it out, Vivar is welcoming: “There’s space to sell. We just got to accommodate each other well.”

Even as they negotiate real estate on the crowded plaza, vendors still feel the need to remain vigilant should vendor enforcement teams or NYPD officers swoop in and confiscate their wares or issue fines. Though vendor enforcement has been moved out of the NYPD’s purview, the fear of cops is still omnipresent, since police can still respond to 311 complaints and 911 calls, and many vendors are undocumented.

In May 2020, in response to a complaint, the NYPD threatened to arrest an unlicensed street vendor selling flowers at the plaza because she didn’t have photo ID, according to video recordings and photos on Twitter. In one video, the husband of the flower vendor, Ernesto, recounted entreating the NYPD officer to arrest him and spare his undocumented wife.

Mariela Vivar’s experiences with police—she was apprehended by police officers in front of her bawling daughters for vending without a permit in 2019, she said—have left her with bitter memories but also know-how and a resolute commitment to get organized. “We are uniting as one. When vendors see any threat, they alert us, so we can help each other,” Vivar said.

State-Level Reform

Some elected officials are pushing for more far-reaching action on the state level. State Senator Jessica Ramos, whose district includes Corona Plaza, has introduced legislation that would eliminate the cap on permits altogether and legalize street vending in New York City permanently.

Street vendors, community supporters and politicians rallied in Corona Plaza on June 16 pressing for a moratorium on fines and for passage of Ramos’ bill. Standing alongside Ramos, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr., and other supporters, Guillén spoke in Spanish demanding the chance to legalize his business.

“We are part of the culture, and we’re not going back into the shadows,” Guillén said. “We are people with rights, and we will continue to fight for all politicians to listen to us and hear our needs.”

Ramos echoed demands from vendors to put in place a moratorium on enforcement fines. After the rally, she posted on Twitter a story of a street vendor in the Bronx who was fined for selling tacos without a permit. “Lucio lost his restaurant job in 2020,” she tweeted. “He was excluded from all pandemic relief, and now fined for trying to survive. The criminalization of the working-class MUST end!”

Lucio, who asked not to use his last name, faced fines totalling $2,050. The Department of Health issued him three violations, documents reviewed by New York Focus show: $1,000 for an unlicensed mobile food vending, $1,000 for unpermitted mobile food vending, and $250 for being less than 20 feet from a building entrance. Like many immigrant workers excluded from relief programs, he became a street vendor as a stopgap after losing his restaurant job last April and is still struggling to survive a year after the worst of the pandemic. He was honored in Mayor de Blasio’s “Hometown Heroes Ticker Tape Parade” in July, along with fellow street vendors deemed essential.

Mariela Vivar sells Mexican pottery at Corona Plaza | Luis Feliz Leon

On July 15, he marched once more along Fordham Road with 60 street vendors and local elected officials, again calling for a moratorium on fines, open streets for vendors to work, and passage of Ramos’ bill. “I am desperate for a permit to work safely. I’m not hurting anyone, or causing any harm. I’m just trying to do my job and serve my community,” Lucio said.

In the meantime, street vendors in Corona Plaza and across the city continue to risk steep fines.

Gabriela Almaraz became the breadwinner for her family last year when her husband, a restaurant chef, lost his job due to the pandemic and later on was diagnosed with cancer. Last year, she started working at Corona Plaza selling traditional Mexican food. More than a year on, she is still working at the same location.

“Since last year, thank god, my husband has been operated on for his colon cancer and is in recovery. I haven’t recovered from losing my housecleaning job. For that reason, I have to sell to survive,” Almaraz told New York Focus, adding that she works Tuesday to Sunday, 12 hours or more daily.

“What we demand is that we get more permits to sell food here. We really need it,” she said. “We have no other recourse for work. We don’t want the police to harass us. We want to be allowed to vend. We need to live off something.”

Luis Feliz Leon is a New York City-based organizer, journalist, and independent scholar.
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