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‘How Can I Feed My Family?’: Vendors Waiting on Licenses March on City Hall After Crackdown

Three years after the City Council passed a bill meant to expand the number of vendor licenses in the city, City Hall is still dragging its feet while the NYPD arrests and harasses food vendors.

Street vendors marching for more vendor licenses on Thursday April 18, 2024. (Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

Street vendors marched through Lower Manhattan on Thursday to demand permits, amid an escalating crackdown by the Adams administration against vendors in Queens and Bronx. Vendors at the protest said they've been fined and have had their merchandise confiscated for selling without a permit during an NYPD crackdown in recent weeks—but it is impossible for them to get a permit because the City still strictly limits how many are available. 

"We just simply want to be able to work and make a living with dignity. We don't want to be treated as criminals," said Queens vendor Irene Arizaga, who joined more than 100 vendors chanting "vendor power" and "yes to permits, no to harassment" in multiple languages as they marched from Bowling Green to City Hall. 

The frustration of vendors has mounted after the City Council passed legislation in 2021 to more than double the number of food vendor permits by issuing 445 new permits a year for the next ten years. By now, more than 800 permits should have been issued. But only 113 permits have actually gone out as of today, according to the City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.. Ten thousand people have already joined a waiting list for the new permits. For vendors who sell merchandise other than food, the number of licenses is capped at 853—a number that hasn't changed since 1979. Some 11,000 people are on a waiting list, which is currently closed. 

In Queens recently, the NYPD has been going after vendors along Roosevelt Avenue. The enforcement came in response to a New York Post report about a block of Roosevelt at 91st Street where the paper said recent migrants were selling stolen merchandise. But vendors said the sweeps have gone far beyond that block and targeted longtime sellers along a 14-block stretch of Roosevelt peddling food, produce, books, and other merchandise from legitimate sources. 

"The police are coming for everybody," said Vivien Grullon, who sells jewelry on Roosevelt near Junction Boulevard and recently had her table seized. "I want to do honest work." Grullon applied four years ago for a license and is number 2,000 on the waiting list. She estimated it would take at least a decade to make it to the top of the list, as she showed her her tax identification documents and emphasizing that she didn't want handouts. "Don't give me money, don't give me rent—only my license, because I like to work."

This week, the NYPD's 115th Precinct posted a photo on social media showing dozens of bags full of merchandise they have confiscated from vendors. "Your feedback matters, and we heard you, Jackson Heights! Thanks to your input and with the support of the Community Response Team and Sanitation, we took action against unlicensed vendors on Roosevelt Avenue," the post read.

Mirna Bodegas with the ticket she received Wednesday. (Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

Mirna Bodegas, who sells water and soda on Roosevelt Avenue near Junction Boulevard, said cops on Wednesday confiscated her cooler and gave her a ticket for $250. 

"It's happening almost every single day on Roosevelt," she said. "I have to keep myself calm, because there's no other way for me to survive. I don't know what's going to happen."

Bodegas said her husband, who vends alongside her, has heart problems that have left him in and out of the hospital and survived a stroke. "This is the only type of work he can do to be able to pay the bills," she said. "When there's enforcement like this, he gets shaky, and this causes him a lot of fear and stress that doesn't help his health."

The latest crackdown follows a raid at nearby Corona Plaza last summer, which largely shut down the popular food market for several months. It has since reopened under tighter regulation. In the Bronx, the CITY reported recently that vendors have been hit with 29 percent more tickets over the past year. 

Floberto Diaz, who has been selling tamales on Fordham Road since losing his job at the beginning of the pandemic, said he had his merchandise confiscated by the Department of Sanitation and has racked up $6,000 in fines.

"They have left me with nothing but stress and anguish for me and my family, as the bills, the rent keeps piling up," he said. "We're not able to go work on the streets. We're being persecuted, and this is affecting our families and our livelihoods."

Sira Jallow, another Bronx vendor, is number 5,528 on the waiting list for a general merchandise license. "They tell me you have to stay home until you get your license. How can I feed my family?" said Jallow, who sells hats and gloves on Westchester Avenue.

Permits that were supposed to be issued under the 2021 law have been delayed because the Health Department was eight months late in sending out applications for the permits, and only has four people working on permits and licenses, according to the Street Vendor Project.

"Vendors don't want to break the law," said Mohamed Attia, the group's managing director. "They want to be legal businesses. They want to comply with the law, but the law is preventing them from accessing that business license. The law is preventing them from existing in a formal manner, and this is the City's fault."

As part of the march on Thursday, a group of vendors visited the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection office in lower Manhattan to attempt to apply for licenses—to no avail. DCWP Deputy Commissioner Alba Pico, speaking to vendors in the lobby of the building, told them unless they were veterans or were on a waitliist created in 2017, there was no way to apply. "The Department of Consumer Affairs follows the law. We're going by the law that was created," she said.

Calvin Baker, a Harlem vendor who went to the office, said it's not his first time being turned away. He tried to apply 30 years ago and was told the waiting list was so long that he shouldn't bother. 

"It's not easy. There's no way for us to get licenses, because they won't open up the door to us," he said. 

Sanitation Department spokesperson Vincent Gragnani said that enforcement has been mostly driven by complaints from 311, community boards, business groups, and elected officials and warnings are given first.

"Mayor Adams has been clear that while street vendors are a vital part of our economic and cultural landscape, unregulated street vending is a quality-of-life concern that affects the safety, accessibility and cleanliness of our neighborhoods," he said.

Vendors are pushing the City Council to pass legislation that would eliminate the caps on licenses for food and general merchandise vendors, after increasing it gradually for five years. Another bill would get rid of criminal penalties for street vending violations, making it a civil offense instead. 

One of the main drivers behind the crackdown on vendors has been Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya, who has supported the enforcement efforts against unpermitted vendors in his Corona district. Vendors criticized him for saying that they should get a license if they want to sell on the street. But Moya said his constituents have been pleading for help with disorderly conditions. 

"As an elected official I have one responsibility and that's to the community I live in and represent—not outside voices or those that come here on a Saturday afternoon for 'an experience' just to go back to their clean gentrified neighborhoods," he said. "I have repeatedly stated my support for increasing the number of permits, but I will not support the unsanitary food sales under open subway staircases, sales of counterfeit goods, or the sale of stolen goods we see on our streets today."

The Health Department said it has released 890 applications for permits under the 2021 law and the process is ongoing. "We look forward to receiving applications for licenses and permits and welcoming new vendors into the industry," said spokeswoman Shari Logan. 

The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Update (4/19, 4:34 p.m.): This story has been updated with the latest data on the number of new vendor permits issued by the City.

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