The Washington Post Sunday

Black-market permit woes may ease for N.Y. vendors

City rules make it tough to legally operate street food carts or trucks


new york — 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, however, 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 has 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 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 seven-year 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their advocates hail the legislatio­n, which has the support of the City Council’s speaker, as a much-needed change to outdated rules they say have strangled entreprene­urship.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, such as representa­tives of the city’s business improvemen­t districts, say there are already too many carts in prime locations. They want any increase in the number of permits to wait until the existing rules are systematic­ally enforced.

“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 bricks-and-mortar businesses about clogged sidewalks. Few people lucky enough to have gotten permits in the 1980s have willingsel­l ly given them up. Instead, they rent them to people such as Huq, even though such arrangemen­ts are a violation of city rules.

Only a minuscule number of permits — about 50 — become available in any given year, 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 a permit, although 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 has been doing it, however, she has 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 is 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.”

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