Day and night, Tapash Sarkar, a Bangladeshi street vendor in lower Manhattan clinks his spatulas as he cooks biryani behind a fingerprint-stained food truck window. “I’m new here, I’ve been at this food cart for 15 days. I came to New York because my country had some problems, religion problems with the Hindus, so that’s why I came here with my family,” Sarkar says.
Sarkar has two children and his wife works at McDonalds. Their monthly rent is $1,600. “Sometimes, I struggle because I don’t earn too much,” he says, “but other times, my wife and I, working together, we can sometimes make enough.”
In recent years, New York City has seen a rise in the number of street vendors. As new vendors increasingly struggle to obtain cart permits from the City Council, many have been turning to a thriving black market. Here, food cart permits are illegally resold from owners to buyers at exorbitant prices, sometimes reaching $25,000 for a standard $200 two-year permit. With many street vendors struggling with high permit costs and the daily risks of operating their carts illegally, both street vendor unions and the City Council have made efforts to alleviate these financial stresses as well as strengthen enforcement surrounding food cart laws.
The New York City food cart permit system was introduced in the 1980s by then mayor Ed Koch. Amidst concerns over crowded streets and complaints from traditional brick-and-mortar businesses that feared a decline in their business, Koch limited the number of annual street carts to 4,000, a figure which remains legally fixed with only 50 additional spots opening up per year. Nevertheless, the estimated 12,000 street vendors currently operating in the city reflect an entirely different reality.
As illegal food permits, taxes and cost of living rise in general, many street vendors are finding it difficult to support not only their business, but also themselves. Tapash Sarkar and Ali Rana, new vendors from Bangladesh who have been in New York for three years, complain about the cost of operating their Biryani Car Halal Food truck in downtown Manhattan.
“The cost for everything is around $30,000,” says Rana. “The permit costs too much. For one year, it’s maybe around $5,000 dollars.” He says “it’s not easy to get a permit” given the competitiveness of the underground market.
A few steps away from the Biryani Car Halal Food truck is Arepitas, a South American food truck staffed by Pablo Tivurs, an immigrant from Mexico who has been in New York for 12 years. Although Arepitas, according to Tivurs, is operating under a free permit given to its original owner by the City Council years ago, Tivurs is nevertheless familiar with the black market. “Most of the cars, even though have a permit, it’s not theirs personally,” he says. “They’re renting it from somebody else and they pay whoever the owner is a fee. The owner depends on who you talk to, it’s not some specific person who rents it, it’s mostly about who you know.”
Tivurs also addresses his own financial difficulties. “ On average, we make around $10,000 [a month] but you know we can’t keep all of it, we have to pay for the produce, the taxes and the bills. Sometimes we can barely survive off of what remains but it really depends from month to month.”
The Street Vendor Project (SVP) is one of several organizations established to help alleviate such financial stresses. Speaking over the phone, Sean Basinski, SVP’s co-director, describes his organization as “providing mostly legal and small business services and more importantly, organizing vendors to have power in our city and to improve the policies and therefore their own lives as vendors.”SVP also works on broader policy goals, one of which is to address with the City Council the current black market of permits and their exorbitant prices. Basinski is pushing for a higher number of permits. If there’s more permits out there, then some people won’t have to turn to the underground market and have it in their own name but in any event, it will, in theory, lessen the price. I guess it’s a matter of supply and demand.”
SVP supported a bill that would have upped the number of food-cart permits by 600 over a seven-year period. But despite having the support of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the bill was squashed in December before it could be voted on by the full Council. Sources told Crain’s that “a lobbying campaign by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, the restaurant industry, the Real Estate Board of New York and numerous business improvement districts persuaded a majority of the Committee on Consumer Affairs to oppose the legislation.” Critics believed that adding more permits without revoking illegally used ones would only exacerbate the problem and create more competition for restaurants struggling to pay brick-and-mortar rents.
Basinski says SVP is “still working on” getting the number of permits increased.
Meanwhile, the City Council is aware of this thriving black market. Marian Guerra, Director of Legislation and Budget under City Council member Margaret S. Chin, is part of the legislative push towards addressing the lack of enforcement on illegal permits.Speaking over the phone, Guerra describes her efforts, stating, “Our legislation, led by Council member Chin has three basic tenets: the expansion of licenses, the creation of an independent and fair and more consistent enforcement unit and three, creating a street advisory board that includes stakeholders from the vendor community, as well as neighborhood BIDs, small businesses in the neighborhoods, and appointees for public officials to ensure that there’s enough voices on the table for all…to understand the landscape on street vending.”
Addressing the gaps in the legal enforcement systems, Guerra says that police departments “have been very honest about them not having the capacity to enforce the dozens and dozens of vendor laws in a consistent way and so that’s why we’re pushing for this creation of this enforcement unit that’s dedicated to enforcing street vendor laws before expanding the number of licenses.”
The legislation proposes the release of an additional 400 vendor licenses annually and another 45 vendor licenses exclusively for veterans. Describing this new license, Guerra states, “This is a new kind of license that will not necessarily be attached to the carts but to the operators of the carts which would also help solve that enforcement issue and the problem that we see when there are vendors with licenses that they don’t actually own.”
The new legislation was introduced to City Council on Sept. 26 last year, and is currently awaiting a general hearing.