Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
Bill de Blasio

OPINION: Mayor de Blasio Leaves Street Vendors Out in the Cold

3:24 PM EDT on October 29, 2020

Cops busted a family of street vendors in Brighton Beach last week — four months after Mayor de Blasio said he was taking the NYPD out of vendor enforcement. Photo: Street Vendor Project

As the coronavirus pandemic surges anew, City Hall is providing some much-needed relief for small businesses in the form of “Open Storefronts” — a program, similar to “Open Restaurants,” that lets brick-and-mortar retail stores use the sidewalks in front of their businesses for sales. That effort is laudable, and it should help stores to recoup months of revenue lost during the pandemic.   

Yet the new program highlights the hypocrisy and discrimination of the city’s approach to business licensing. Even as the city moved quickly to establish Open Storefronts and Open Restaurants, it has left thousands of street vendors literally out in the cold. 

There is a remedy. The city immediately must pass Intro 1116 — a bill that would provide relief for struggling street vendors, which has languished in the City Council, despite 29 co-sponsors. 

Yet even if Intro 1116 passes, the city must address a glaring injustice: the different way that it treats street vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses, which amounts to an unfair double-standard. 

The recent history is clear.

Mayor de Blasio acted with alacrity to “cut the red tape” for Open Restaurants and Open Storefronts, changing sidewalk rules almost overnight and setting up relatively simple enforcement and siting requirements. There are no caps on the number of establishments that can apply for permits: 40,000 retailers are expected to sign up for “Open Storefronts” by filling out an online form; more than 10,000 restaurants have used “Open Restaurants” during the past few months.

By comparison, street vendors must follow Byzantine rules and regulations that restrict them from hundreds of streets. In Intro 1116, they are asking for a paltry 400 mobile food-vendor permits a year for 10 years and the establishment of a civilian agency for vendor compliance. It’s not an impossible lift.

Street vendors have been waiting almost 40 years for relief from the city’s outdated vending system — which places arbitrary caps on the number of vending licenses and permits and leaves vendors subject to excessive enforcement such as high fines, property seizure, and harassment and arrest at the hands of the police. 

Such harassment is hurting real New Yorkers now — and happened as recently as last week in Brighton Beach.  

A family was vending clothing from the sidewalk when three NYPD officers pulled up, asking to see their license. They have a certification that authorizes them to sell in stores, but couldn’t afford rent and weren’t able to negotiate the arduous process for a street-vending license. 

Last week, the family was fined up to $1,000, during the middle of an economic crisis — four months after the mayor declared that the NYPD would no longer be involved in vending enforcement. 

Yet when proposals for vending reform come before the city, the opposition is out in full force claiming that street vendors make “sidewalks impassable” and that the city must add enforcement and siting requirements for vendors before issuing any new permits. Even during the pandemic, the NYC Business Improvement Districts Association, which advocated for “Open Storefronts,” has sought to stifle economic opportunity for vendors by heightening enforcement

Most street vendors are immigrant entrepreneurs who work long hours in order to support their families even amid a global pandemic and economic instability. They come from the communities most affected by COVID-19. Vendors are the lifeblood of our city, feeding millions of New Yorkers across the five boroughs, from the halal food truck to the ice-cream truck that drives through our neighborhoods during the summer.  

When will the city treat street vendors, who have been operating safely on our streets for hundreds of years, as legitimate small businesses? It seems that, during a pandemic, the power imbalance is even more visible as the well-connected obtain relief while the most marginalized communities and smallest businesses continue to face exclusion. 

Unless the city explicitly includes street vendors in its plans, the unequal history of enforcement of our public streets will continue, and vendors, who come from communities that have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, will remain excluded from recovery efforts. New York City must do better to end this “Tale of Two Cities.”

The Street Vendor Project (@vendorpower), a membership-based organization that is part of the Urban Justice Center, works to defend the rights and improve the working conditions of the 20,000 people who sell food and merchandise on city streets.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

Council Votes to Repeal Decade-Old Law, Expedite Bike Lane Installation

The City Council repealed a notorious. out-dated law that imposed lengthy delays on the city before it could break ground on new bike lanes.

December 7, 2023

Dynamic! MTA Could Hike Congestion Pricing Toll 25% on Gridlock Alert Days

The MTA said it had that power, and modeled it in its environmental assessment (see footnote 2 below), but no one ever reported it, until Wednesday.

December 6, 2023

Judge Orders Trial for Hit-and-Run Driver Who Turned Down ‘Reasonable’ Sentencing Offer

Judge Brendan Lantry turns down driver's request for mere probation for killing a delivery worker in 2022. The trial will start in January.

December 6, 2023

Wednesday’s Headlines: Another Big Day at City Hall Edition

Today is going to be another busy day for the livable streets crowd. So get ready with today's headlines.

December 6, 2023

Reporter’s Notebook: Will Eric Adams Ever Publicly Embrace Congestion Pricing?

The governor, the head of the MTA and the city's leading transit thinkers all celebrated congestion pricing on Tuesday as an historic moment while Mayor Adams spent Tuesday failing to live up to it.

December 6, 2023
See all posts