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New York City May Double Number of Food Vendor Permits

October 10, 2016

Samantha Schmidt, The New York Times

For eight years, Julia Chimborazo has sold Italian ice on the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, doing what she can to support her two young children and send money to a third, who still lives in her native Ecuador.

She is part of the movable feast of street food vendors in New York City, offering a rich variety of native and innovative options, seldom from the same location. And Ms. Chimborazo, like many others, does so illegally.

There is a limit on the number of food carts and trucks allowed on the city’s streets, and even those who have managed to secure a permit — often on the black resale market — have found that the cost and difficulty of doing business can outweigh the benefits.

With that in mind, the City Council intends to consider legislation that would gradually double the number of food vendor permits issued over the course of seven years, making it possible for 600 more street vendors to begin legally selling food each year.

Since the early 1980s, the number of food vendor permits allowed by the city’s health department has stayed at about 4,235, causing many vendors to turn to a black market, where two-year, full-time permits can cost up to $25,000. Vendors who obtain a two-year permit from the city pay $200 and can renew it indefinitely. Under the proposed legislation, a two-year permit would cost $1,000.

The legislation, called the Street Vending Modernization Act and sponsored by Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Council speaker, and at least six other members, would aim to curb the black market while boosting enforcement of regulations, especially in congested areas.

Preference would be given to vendors on the city’s waiting lists for permits; approximately 2,500 people are currently on the list for full-time permits. Thirty-five permits would be set aside for veterans and disabled people. A new dedicated vendor law enforcement unit would be created to unburden local officers from ensuring that vendor rules are followed. The bills would also refine certain outdated rules and restrictions applied to food vendors.

“In an era of relentless gentrification, street vendors are the ultimate mom and pops,” said Councilman Mark Levine, a Democrat who is sponsoring the core bills in the package being introduced at a Council meeting on Thursday. “It’s been a path to entrepreneurship as long as this city has existed,” Mr. Levine, who represents much of Harlem, added.

Without a permit, Ms. Chimborazo, 35, has had her cart taken away and has paid more than $1,300 in fines. “Sometimes, I don’t even go outside to sell, out of fear,” she said in Spanish. With a permit, she said, “We would have a better life, my kids would have more.”

Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, has led a campaign for the past two and a half years to eliminate the cap on food vendor permits. He estimates there are a total of 10,000 to 12,000 food vendors in the city, including those selling without permits.

By relieving the financial obstacles to running a food cart or truck, Mr. Basinski said, vendors would have the flexibility to offer more innovative products. A larger variety of foods would be sold in certain neighborhoods where the options are slimmer. Many Bangladeshi vendors, for example, would rather sell their food than hot dogs, Mr. Basinski said. “But they can’t take that risk,” he said. “They know hot dogs sell.”

Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership and the Bryant Park Management Corporation, has been a staunch opponent of increasing the number of food vendor permits. In Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Biederman said, food trucks and carts crowd sidewalks, release fumes, create loud noise from generators and more frequently skirt health codes. “The streets of New York already look bad,” he said. “They’re going to look incredibly bad if this program goes in.”

But for Adam Sobel, the chef and owner of the Cinnamon Snail, a Vendy Award-winning food truck, a permit would allow him to expand sales of his popular vegan foods to parts of the city that lack those options. Mr. Sobel decided to shut down the bulk of his food truck operations last year, after renting a permit for five years from a man who would fly in from Pakistan to visit the health department with him. He now runs a stand, and operates a food truck at public events in New York City and New Jersey.

“I’m not trying to break the law,” he said. “I want to be able to go to sleep at night and not have anxiety about getting arrested for some of my vegan sandwiches.”