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City Council prompts debate between businesses with bill that would double NYC street vendor permits

October 26, 2016

Erin Durkin, The New York Daily News

Street vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses clashed Wednesday over a bill that would more than double the number of permits allowed for food vendors.

The proposal, which went up for a hearing in the City Council, would add 4,445 new permits for street carts, doled out gradually over six years. The number available has been capped at 4,235 since 1983.

Vendors have pushed to lift the cap, saying they're forced to shell out as much as $25,000 on the black market for permits the city gets only $200 for, they face hefty fines for working without a permit, or they get shut out of the industry altogether.

"We're treated like criminals," said Julia Chimborazo, 35, who sells ices to support her two kids and sick mother but hasn't been able to get a permit, saying she's been hit with several $1,000 fines and had her wares confiscated by cops.

The de Blasio administration did not take a firm position on the permit hike, saying they want to conduct a count of existing vendors first.

Health department officials said the city should consider imposing health standards on food peddled by new vendors.

"We should introduce measures to ensure that our children, in particular, are not bombarded with only unhealthy food offerings," said Deputy Commissioner Corinne Schiff.

She also said the Council should consider restrictions on grilling meat, since it produces air pollution.

"We have concerns on how some of the legislation may impact sidewalk conditions and the quality of life in our communities," added NYPD Deputy Chief Frank Vega.

City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), the sponsor of the bill, said the city already has plenty of information to conclude the current system needs an overhaul.

"We know there are thousands of illegal vendors out there, we know there's a thriving black market, and we know that enforcement has been extremely uneven," he said. "What more do we need to know before we decide to act?"

The legislation would also hike the fee for a permit to $1,000 from the current $200, and create a new Office of Street Vendor Enforcement to crack down on rule violations.

Other bills would ease rules on where vendors can set up, allowing them to be up to three feet from the curb instead of right at the curb, allow permits to be transferred between family members, and require vendors to post the prices of all their items.

Business improvement districts from neighborhoods around the city opposed the legislation, saying local stores are already forced to compete with vendors who have lower costs, and sometimes clog sidewalks and make a mess.

"Most of the current food vending carts in New York are unsightly, commandeer Manhattan's busiest corners, often in pedestrian crosswalks, are already too numerous in Manhattan's busiest neighborhoods, (and) violate food safety laws that restaurants, delicatessens and bodegas must follow," said Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership.

"Why in the world would the City Council double the number of food carts in a terribly managed program, one what is an active sore for Manhattan's small business and real estate communities?"

Other critics questioned whether the expansion would really snuff out the black market, or just funnel more permits to owners who would continue to cling to them and jack up the price for vendors actually on the street.

"This legislation is an affront to brick-and-mortar businesses that are trying desperately to keep their doors open throughout varied economic times," said Jeffrey LeFrancois, director of operations for the Meatpacking District BID.

But Mohammed Attia, 28, a smoothie vendor in Midtown said New Yorkers flock to vendors for tasty food at cheap prices, and the businesses should be able to operate legally.

Attia said he pays $6,000 to rent a seasonal permit that's only valid from April to October, since the cost of a full two-year permit on the black market is too steep.

"This is maybe the only way to end the black market," he said. "We work so hard to support our families and pay our taxes. We serve all New Yorkers."