Street vendors stage ‘sleepout’ at Hochul’s Midtown office to lift cap on licenses

Street vendors and advocacy groups launched a 24-hour “sleepout” in front of Governor Kathy Hochul’s office in Midtown Manhattan Monday, calling on the state’s chief executive to lift the city cap on permits for the sidewalk businesses.

A decades-old limit on licenses to legally hawk goods like halal food, hotdogs, pretzels, or churros in the streets of the Big Apple has led to a massive market of vendors operating their businesses outside of the law, and the largely-immigrant workers face routine crackdowns from city inspectors and law enforcement.

“We want to be able to work with dignity, we want to be able to provide for our families,” said Bronx vendor Maria Lopez in Spanish through a translator.

Some 20 merchants planned to sleep on the sidewalk outside Hochul’s midtown office Monday night, demanding she and state lawmakers pass a 2019 bill by state Senator Jessica Ramos that would lift the number of permits for street vendors, and fund the expansion of licenses in the state’s upcoming budget.

Thousands of unlicensed vendors have struggled to get an official license as the city effectively capped the number of permits for decades, leading to a near-endless waitlist..

Mohamed Attia, the director of the advocacy group Street Vendor Project, said that some 90% of vendors operate in the underground market, facing the possibility of $1,000 fines, while some rent other people’s permits for up to $25,000.

“That is something that is very disruptive to all the vendors community,” Attia said. 

Lopez was arrested by police for selling cut fruits outside the Bronx courthouses on Grand Concourse back in 2011 — all in front of her then-four-year-old daughter, and officials confiscated the goods she was selling.

“That’s the kind of experience that you just never forget,” she said.

The city has stepped up ticketing of the merchants recently despite former Mayor Bill de Blasio shifting the responsibility of enforcing the regulations from the NYPD to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), reported Gothamist.

Protestors called on Gov. Hochul to lift the city’s cap on street vendor licenses.Photo by Kevin Duggan

One Queens man selling religious items said he and his fellow vendors have felt the increased patrols in the Jackson Heights neighborhood where he likes to hawk his goods.

“They started targeting that area in Jackson Heights so much so that the vendors decided that they could only set up and after certain hours” said Nasir Uddin, a Bangladeshi immigrant, whose experience was relayed through a translator as well.

In one high-profile case in September, DCWP shut down a Bronx vendor’s fruit and vegetable stand and Department of Sanitation workers were caught on video throwing out her fresh produce, something officials later admitted was a mistake in their protocol.

One activist with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said Hochul should earmark $19 million in the state budget to support an expanded permitting process, slamming the status quo as criminalizing workers who sold goods throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The same individuals that we’re calling heroes are the ones that we are criminalizing in the streets,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a lawyer with the organization. “Do you send a hero to jail for selling tamales, for selling chicken over rice, is this how you repay them Governor Hochul?”

A spokesperson for the governor said she will continue to negotiate with legislators over the coming weeks as the budget deadline approaches at the end of March.

“Governor Hochul’s executive budget includes bold initiatives to embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our future, and we look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers,” said Jim Urso in a statement.