Here are the fifteen reader questions SVP Director Sean Basinski answered for the NY Times Cityroom blog on October 7-9, 2009.
What is the primary benefit of the support that the Street Vendor Project gives to the vendors? How many vendors receive support?
— Posted by Doria
The Street Vendor Project trains our 900-plus members about the vending rules and how to respond to harassment from police officers and store owners. We defend them in court when they are ticketed or arrested, or when they have their goods confiscated, which happens often. We also help link our members with financial training and small business loans.
But the Street Vendor Project is not primarily a service organization, Doria. Most of our time is spent doing grassroots organizing, so that vendors will collectively have a more powerful voice. Because vendors have never before been effectively organized in New York City, the regulations are stacked heavily against them and in favor of the big business and real estate interests that have always tried to get rid of vending.
We go out in the streets to recruit new members to our organization. We identify and develop strong vendor leaders to speak for themselves and our community. We also hold meetings where vendors decide together the best strategies for carrying out the reforms we seek, like more licenses and permits, more open streets, and an end to the harsh $1,000 fines that are currently in place.
How come vendors are allowed to set up right by delis and restaurants which have to pay rent, insurance, carting and all the “fun” that goes along with setting up a business. Carts should not be allowed on any street which has an existing food shop.
— Posted by Brian
I can understand how you feel, Brian. I’m sure if I had a vendor outside my store or restaurant, I would relate to you 100 percent.
But the “unfair competition” argument is based on a misunderstanding of what costs vendors do pay. Vendors pay licensing fees, insurance and taxes just like any other small businesses. And while they do not pay retail rent, of course, they also do not get the benefits that go along with an indoor space — ample space to display and store their wares, a roof over their heads, heating and air-conditioning, and a secure gate to pull down each night. Instead, vendors push their carts or tables back to their garages, where they do pay rent each month.
Also, many studies have shown that vendors do not compete with stores because they almost always offer different products. The person who buys the $4 chai latte from Starbucks and the one who buys a 75-cent vendor coffee are completely different consumers.
Street food culture is active in so many other cities (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco). How do the rules in New York City compare to other major cities such as these? Are there organizations in other cities similar to the Street Vendor Project?
— Posted by Luca
While New York is still the capital of street vending in the United States, Luca, sidewalk entrepreneurship is gaining popularity in many other cities. An organization called the Street Food Vendors Association recently formed in Toronto, and Los Angeles, where a group of taco truck owners have formed Los Loncheros, is becoming a hotbed of vendor activism.
In general, vending regulations are more restrictive in places that do not have as strong a vending tradition as we do in New York City — like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. But other cities are quickly catching up. Portland, Ore., for example, has developed a regulatory system that encourages vendors and treats them like small businesses instead of criminals, as we do in New York. As a result, Portland now has twice as many food carts per capita as New York, and the variety of offerings (everything from jambalaya to muffaletta) is unsurpassed.
I just wish all the South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants selling lousy hot dogs were selling food from their own countries (no, I dont mean the tired “chicken on rice with white sauce” dishes everywhere). Wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy a freshly cook samosa or a bag of roasted fava beans on the street, rather than a limp, flavorless frankfurter, whose best days as a treat offered by Eastern European vendors is long gone?
— Posted by Richard Rubin
Richard, it is possible to get great Asian and Middle Eastern food on the streets of New York City if you look hard enough.
In fact, every year, we hold a competition called the Vendys, where vendors who make some of the best food in the city cook off for the title of best New York City vendor. For example, Thiru Kumar, our 2007 Vendy Award winner, sells delicious samosas from his cart on Washington Square South every day of the week.
But I know what you mean. The fact is that the majority of New York City street food vendors are not chefs with entrepreneurial aspirations, but rather low-skilled immigrant workers who are struggling to make ends meet. Having little or no capital to risk, they tend to follow proven formulas that offer predictable fare, like hot dogs, which are also not my favorite but which for many people make a delicious and affordable (if not the healthiest) lunch.
Incidentally, our organization is now offering a quarterly Street Food Vending 101 class to help teach aspiring street chefs about the business. We hope it will encourage more diverse street eats.
How are all these new vending mobile trucks getting health department permits when the list is closed? Why is it, the trucks such as all the ice cream trucks in Manhattan allowed to stay put in one location when they are to be moving place to place.
— Posted by Bob C.
There is no requirement that ice cream trucks move around, Bob. But most of them have particular routes that they operate each day, to give everybody a chance to get some ice cream.
As for the new vendors, they are doing what all food vendors have to do if they do not want to wait 10 to 15 years for a permit — they turn to the black market. Because the city has arbitrarily capped the number of food vending permits available, and because demand far exceeds supply, a black market exists whereby former vendors who are no longer using their permits rent them to vendors who need them. Permit holders pay $200 to the city and flip the permits on the black market for $6,000 to $8,000.
This is a major injustice that the Street Vendor Project is trying to get changed. The health department knows the black market exists but looks the other way. Instead, it should revoke permits from people who are no longer using them, and reissue them to current vendors who desperately need them.
An even easier and more effective way to solve the problem would be simply to issue more permits, drying up the black market. A bill currently before the City Council, Intro 324 would do just that, and we are urging elected officials to support it.
I stopped eating falafels a LONG time ago, ever since a co-worker commented she “never eats food from someone who can’t wash their hands.” So, where do street vendors go for restroom needs and where do they wash their hands if they sneeze or cough?
— Posted by Annette
Food vendors are required to comply with the health code, just like restaurants, and they are inspected and ticketed by health inspectors even more frequently. Believe it or not, carts selling cooked food must have sinks and plumbing, with hot and cold running water for hand washing. As for bathrooms, vendors use the facilities at nearby stores and delis.
I hope you will give street falafel another chance, Annette — it is one of the simple pleasures of life in New York City. In many ways, street food is safer than food at restaurants because you can “peer into the kitchen” and judge for yourself whether the cart looks clean. Of course, you can also look at the lines and ask your fellow customers. And now many carts are being reviewed on sites like Yelp and Midtown Lunch.
Aside from the Vendys and offering legal counsel, how can your organization promote the benefits of street vendors and improve relations between these vendors and the residents and workers with whom they’re sharing public space?
— Posted by Sean
It is all about education, Sean. We do our best to write reports, like Peddling Uphill [pdf], shoot videos, and maintain our Web site, streetvendor.org, so the public will have a greater awareness of the important role vendors play in the life and economy of our city. We also attend community board and police precinct meetings to create opportunities for dialogue about these issues. We often find that the people complaining the loudest about vendors have never spoken to one before!
In fact, the interests of street vendors and store owners are often intertwined. After all, many big businesses (like D’Agostino’s supermarket) started out as pushcarts. Vendors act as a deterrent to street crime, for example, which helps both shopkeepers and residents. And, as this article details, vendors draw shoppers to many neighborhoods; when they are not there, the stores suffer.
What are the biggest legal issues facing street vendors today? What should a street vendor do if he or she is being is being harassed by the New York Police Department?
— Posted by Rachel K
Police harassment is a big problem for vendors, Rachel. Vendors are easy targets for abuse because of the language barriers they usually face when trying to communicate with the authorities. We train our members to respectfully but firmly assert their rights to vend legally on the public sidewalk. We teach them to take down badge numbers of abusive officers and file complaints. We also distribute disposable cameras so that vendors can gather proof, on the spot, for use later in court.
But the biggest legal challenge facing New York City street vendors is the unfair and exorbitant fines they are required to pay. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration raised vendor ticket prices to levels far above what other small businesses pay. Nearly every day, we see licensed, tax-paying vendors fined $1,000 for a single minor infraction, such as forgetting to visibly display their license while vending or placing their cart inches too far from the curb. It is the clearest example I know in New York of the laws being stacked against hard-working poor people. It is also completely heartbreaking. The Bloomberg administration has refused to even meet with us to discuss this issue.
I know all the proceeds from the Vendys go to the Street Vendor Project, but to what exactly? Any way to break it up by dollar?
— Posted by Korovka
As with any nonprofit, Korovka, a majority of our budget is spent on salaries and benefits for our staff, which right now consists of me and our organizer, Ali Issa. We also pay stipends for our leadership board members when they take time away from their vending businesses to do work for the organization. The rest goes toward overhead expenses, like rent, utilities, supplies and insurance. We are lucky to be part of the Urban Justice Center which keeps our overhead low because we all share expenses. We also rely on a wonderful team of interns, volunteers and pro bono lawyers who donate their time. We are always looking for help, by the way, so please drop us a line if you want to get involved.
Apart from the Vendy Awards, most of our financing comes from membership dues — each member pays $100 per year. We also receive a few small grants from private foundations, like the North Star Fund. Unfortunately, we do not receive any government money. While the city and state spend millions every year on small business development, not a penny is allocated to programs for street vendors, the group with perhaps the greatest need.
As an advocate of the disabled veterans’ right to vend freely, what do you think about the situation that has emerged between disabled veterans who are being paid to sit in front of a non-war-veteran’s cart in case the police come by? Do you think this is within the legislative intent of the law?
— Posted by Kirsten
Good question, Kirsten — this is a difficult issue. Clearly, the intention of the law, a New York State statute that provides special licensing preferences for United States military veterans, especially disabled veterans, is to provide them opportunities for self-employment. Many veterans have difficulty holding down traditional 9-to-5 jobs, so street vending is perfect for them, in theory.
Unfortunately, many veterans have physical or psychological disabilities that prevent them from running their own vending businesses — which requires managing inventory, transportation, storage, etc. They often get hired by non-vets, who pay them for their presence at the vending table (with license) each day. This system provides these vets with daily income, which is better than nothing. But it is far from ideal, and frequently the veterans are exploited by their “employers” who put them in illegal locations, knowing that any tickets will be written to the vendor, not the employer.
To honor our veterans as they deserve, the city and state governments should create training programs to provide them the skills and support they need to manage their vending businesses on their own.
How does your experience in Lagos compare and contrast to the experience of vendors on the ground over here?
— Posted by Peter Badoe
There are more similarities than differences, Peter. Vendors in Lagos are usually migrants from rural villages who cannot find regular work, but take up vending as a means of basic survival. The wealthy elite and government officials regard them as a nuisance, and have begun harsh crackdowns leading to many thousands of arrests and confiscations. As in New York, their only crime is trying to make an honest living.
The global economic crisis in the formal economy has only strengthened the informal sector, including street vendors, all over the world. This is a sign of hope. Some countries are now beginning to respect and accommodate street vendors – even China, whose efforts to legitimize vending are discussed in this article. There is also a global coalition of street vendor groups called StreetNet International, of which S.V.P. is a proud member, that is now fighting for the rights of vendors around the world.
Do vendors need a permit for specific street locations, or can they just set up shop wherever they want? I ask because I live in an area that had zero vendors two years ago but overnight now has two or three vendors on weekend nights, in locations that seem out of character with traditional vending locations.
— Posted by LES
That is funny, LES, because, of course, the Lower East Side is the traditional home of street vending in New York. A hundred years ago, there would have been pushcarts lining your entire block, selling everything from pots and pans to fresh and smoked fish. It is interesting that they are returning to that neighborhood after so many years.
But to answer your question – no, vendors cannot just set up wherever they want. But they also do not receive permits for specific locations. Vendors may work on any block that has not been restricted by law. There are long lists of streets (available here ) that have been closed to vending due to lobbying by business improvement districts (B.I.D.’s). Even on an open block, there are many locations vendors cannot go. For example, they may not vend within 10 feet of any crosswalk or within 20 feet of any commercial building entrance. Most of these rules are illustrated in Vendor Power, a booklet we recently created with the Center for Urban Pedagogy and designer Candy Chang. It is available here.
What, if anything, is your organization doing to address the seemingly increasing hostility amongst vendors regarding territory and proximity?
— Posted by Frank
Actually, Frank, vendors have always had arguments about who gets the best sidewalk locations. I don’t believe hostility has increased. As our community is now getting much more attention, however, it does create that impression.
While we do try to mediate disputes, there is ultimately not much we can do other than encourage the vendors to respect each other’s seniority and work things out peacefully among themselves. While we have nearly 1,000 members, the majority of New York vendors are not S.V.P. members. It is not always even clear who is at fault. And, truthfully, considering that vendors’ livelihoods are at stake, the current system of self-regulation works pretty well.
One thing that can be done to lessen friction, and decrease sidewalk congestion in general, is to open more streets to vending. That way, vendors could space out more evenly, rather than having to squeeze together on the relatively few streets that are open to them. For years, we have asked the city to adopt objective standards for determining which streets are open or closed to vending, instead of leaving it a game of political football. We renew that call today.
I love getting my lunch from street vendors, and so do my friends. It seems to me that vendors are an integral part of N.Y.C. culture. Why do you think that they (street vendors) are constantly harassed by the city when most people I know love them?
— Posted by Helen D.
You are right, Helen, that vendors are emblematic of New York City in many ways. They reflect our city’s mix of immigrant cultures, our tradition of self-made strivers and our respect for shared public space and the interactions that go on there. Someone once gave me a book about New York that had a picture of a street vendor on the cover. There was a reason they chose that photo.
But as you see from these questions, some people still complain that vendors block the sidewalk, spew smoke, steal their customers, etc. Though few in number, often their voices are the loudest. If we are going to change things, we need you, your friends and the millions of other New Yorkers who appreciate street vendors to be more involved in the public debate. Talk to your neighbors and elected officials about supporting vendors! Come to the Vendy Awards next year! Or, at the very least, engage the vendor on your block in a real conversation the next time you pass by. I guarantee that your appreciation for vendors will only grow.
I heard that selling art work on the sidewalk or public area is exempted from requiring a street vendor license. Is that true? What are the rules for artists selling artwork on the sidewalk and public area?
— Posted by Chandle
That is true, Chandle. Under the First Amendment, anyone may sell books, magazines, records, CDs, DVDs, political items and art in New York without a license — which is a good thing, because there are so few licenses available that the waiting list hasn’t even been opened up since 1992. This option gives many young and emerging artists a chance to sell their work, even if they are not represented by galleries. It also contributes to a lively artistic and political scene in SoHo, Union Square and other areas where art is commonly sold. Vendors selling First Amendment-protected materials must still abide by restrictions on the size and placement of their tables, must still avoid certain restricted streets and must still collect and pay sales taxes on what they sell.
The problem lies in determining what kind of artwork is acceptable for sale without a license. While fine art such as paintings, photographs and sculpture are safe, for less traditional forms of art, the boundaries are not clear. In a 2006 federal case brought by S.V.P., Mastrovincenzo v. the City of New York, the Appeals Court held that artwork may be sold if its “dominant purpose” is expressive rather than commercial — which doesn’t help much. Many people call our office asking if their painted T-shirts, finger puppets, handmade jewelry, whatever can legally be sold without a license. Unfortunately, there is no process for pre-approval; the only option is to try it. If the police disagree with you, you may be arrested, and you can make your case to the judge.
To correct this situation and encourage creativity to flourish in New York, the City Council should pass a law broadening and clarifying the rights of artists who wish to sell their wares on the street.