New York City Should Support Street Vending for a More Just Recovery

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Street vendors and supporters march across Brooklyn Bridge during a rally in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, November 12, 2020.
© 2020 Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York City’s roughly 20,000 street vendors have suffered enormously this past year, as the Covid-19 pandemic compounded perennial challenges such as the lack of a social safety net in the United States for immigrant workers and informal businesses and police action against those operating without proper permits.

But there is hope for change. The New York City Council is expected to vote tomorrow on a law to reform the overly restrictive street vending system.

The bill up for a vote, Intro. 1116-2018, would gradually increase the number of permits available to street vendors over the next decade. It would create 4,000 new sidewalk and street food-selling permits by 2032, doubling the current number. Lifting the cap would help support the work of many low-income earners and make thousands eligible for small business assistance in critical times such as the current crisis.

New York City capped the number of mobile food vendor permits in 1983, creating an underground market where street vendors were forced to rent a permit from existing permit-holders for up to $25,000, often forcing them to take on debt. Those who can’t afford to rent a permit operate without one, risking hefty fines and property confiscation. For years, street vendors have been asking the City for more permits so they can fully enjoy their right to work.

Street vending provides a critical economic lifeline for people who lost work or face difficulty entering the job market. NYC’s street vendors are primarily women of color, military veterans, and low-income immigrant workers who live in communities disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. But due to their immigration status or the informal nature of their businesses, they have been excluded from federal, state, and most local Covid-19 relief, pushing them deeper into economic hardship.

The Covid-19 crisis has amplified socio-economic inequalities in cities the world over, in part because of inequitable responses by governments that have often prioritized big business and left the poorest populations behind. Concrete actions need to be taken to reduce disparities rather than exacerbate them. The bill will not entitle immigrant vendors to Covid-19 relief, but it will remove one barrier—informality—to accessing small business loans and grants, and it will allow many more vendors to operate without fear of punishment. This may seem like a small step toward greater economic justice and a rights-centered recovery, but it could be life-changing for many of the city’s vendors.