A de­sire named street cart: Red tape sti­fles ven­dors

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Deepti Ha­jela

With a guy sell­ing pret­zels and hot dogs on ev­ery other block, Man­hat­tan must seem to tourists like a Shangri-La for street food ven­dors — a place where any en­tre­pre­neur will­ing to stand in bad weather for long hours can hus­tle up a liv­ing. In re­al­ity, though, New York’s food cart busi­ness is no pic­nic.

For decades, the city’s reg­u­la­tory scheme has made it next to im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain a new per­mit to op­er­ate a food cart or truck. That’s locked thou­sands of ven­dors into a black-mar­ket sys­tem where they are forced to pay huge amounts to “rent” one of the city’s roughly 4,200 ex­ist­ing per­mits from do-noth­ing mid­dle­men. Or else, they can risk hefty fines by op­er­at­ing il­le­gally.

Un­able to get a per­mit of his own, Mo­hammed Sha­heedul Huq, who op­er­ates a cart in down­town Brook­lyn, paid $18,000 up­front to lease one from a man who pays the city just $200 ev­ery two years for the li­cense.

“I have no choice,” said Huq, who was a stock­bro­ker in his na­tive Bangladesh but now rooms in one of Brook­lyn’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods. “He’s sup­posed to not sell it to me. I’m sup­posed to not buy from him. All depart­ments know how it works, but no­body takes any ac­tion.”

That could be chang­ing. The New York City Coun­cil is look­ing at adopt­ing leg­is­la­tion that would cre­ate 600 new food ven­dor per­mits each year for a sev­enyear pe­riod, roughly dou­bling the num­ber of carts and trucks al­lowed on the street.

Street ven­dors and their ad­vo­cates hail the leg­is­la­tion, which has the sup­port of the City Coun­cil’s speaker, as a much-needed change to out­dated rules they say have stran­gled en­trepreneur­ship.

But others, like rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the city’s busi­ness im­prove­ment dis­tricts, say there are al­ready too many carts in prime lo­ca­tions as it is now. They want any in­crease in the num­ber of per­mits to only fol­low af­ter sys­tem­atic en­force­ment of ex­ist­ing rules.

“If you lift the cap on the num­ber of ven­dors with­out do­ing any­thing else, it’s not like 600 ven­dors are go­ing to spread through­out the five bor­oughs. They’re just go­ing to go where the money is,” said Ellen Baer, co-chair of the NYC BID As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents the city’s 72 busi­ness im­prove­ment dis­tricts.

New York City capped the num­ber of food vend­ing per­mits at around 4,200 in the early 1980s af­ter sim­i­lar com­plaints from brickand-mor­tar busi­nesses about clogged side­walks. Few peo­ple lucky enough to have got­ten per­mits in the 1980s have will­ingly given them up. In­stead, they rent them to peo­ple like Huq, even though such ar­range­ments are a vi­o­la­tion of city rules.

Only a mi­nus­cule num­ber of per­mits be­come avail­able in any given year, roughly 50, ac­cord­ing to the city. A wait­ing list that was opened in 2007 with 2,500 spots still has about 1,700 peo­ple on it.

Thou­sands more ven­dors set up shop with­out any per­mit, though they run a risk of steep fines.

Delmy Ze­laya, who runs a cart on a Queens street, said she might make $60 a day sell­ing obleas, a Colom­bian snack that has a layer of caramel be­tween two wafers. In the four years she’s been do­ing it though, she’s al­ready been fined $3,000.

The sys­tem of peo­ple hold­ing onto their per­mits and rent­ing them out isn’t fair, Ze­laya said, es­pe­cially for some­one like her who’s just try­ing to make ex­tra in­come to help cover bills.

“I want to live and breathe,” she said. “I don’t want any­body to stop me.”

The leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced last month would hike the fee for a two-year per­mit to $1,000 and cre­ate a ded­i­cated en­force­ment unit.

Sean Basin­ski, di­rec­tor of the Street Ven­dor Project at the Ur­ban Jus­tice Cen­ter, which ad­vo­cates for ven­dors, said he fa­vored re­mov­ing the caps on per­mits en­tirely. But he called the bill “a se­ri­ous and thought­ful and rea­son­able ef­fort to get at the heart of the prob­lem, which is the lack of op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mo­hammed Sha­heedul Huq serves a cus­tomer from his food cart in the Brook­lyn bor­ough of New York. For decades, the city’s reg­u­la­tory scheme has made it next to im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain a new per­mit to op­er­ate a food cart or truck. Un­able to get a per­mit of his own, Huq paid $18,000 up­front to lease one from a man who pays the city just $200 ev­ery two years for the li­cense.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mo­hammed Sha­heedul Huq speaks with a cus­tomer in front of his food cart in the Brook­lyn bor­ough of New York.

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