Lola Diaz has lived in Spanish Harlem for 25 years, and has sold Mexican food on the street for half that time.
She has a license to sell but, like thousands of street vendors, she can’t get a city sticker permit, which puts her at the mercy of inspectors or police who can ticket or arrest her. Getting a permit to set up a street food cart, which a license alone doesn’t grant you, is nearly impossible since the city capped permits in 1983. Including the many categories, permits are capped at about 5,000.
Last month, the city squeezed vendors in this part of town. Diaz, 47, got five tickets, $1,000 each, for not having a permit. The mother of three has tried to pay off three of them in installments. She’ll challenge two in court. She would have to make and sell more than 1,000 tacos just to pay the fines. Last week, inspectors confiscated a small table and pushcart she has with her stand.
Diaz was lucky compared with other vendors in the area. That week, inspectors seized the grill of another Mexican vendor who did not have a permit. Even a well-known 78-year-old vendor of flavored ices who’s pushed his cart for years was caught in the crackdown, losing not only his cart but, with the fines, essentially his business.
Sean Basinski of The Street Vendor Project, which advocates for vendors and has highlighted the cap on permits, says the problem has gone on too long. “Mayor [Bill] de Blasio talks a lot about equitable economic development,” Basinski says. “By lifting the cap on vending permits, the city can create stable jobs for thousands of entrepreneurs who are immigrants, veterans and people of color.”
The number of permits available for vendors has been frozen for 33 years, despite a 20 percent population increase, forcing many to operate outside the law. More profitable vendors and food trucks, sometimes operated by young out-of-town hipster-preneurs, buy permits on the black market for tens of thousands of dollars. Others, like immigrant vendors, can’t afford them. Making matters worse is that business improvement districts and building owners, perhaps eyeing wealthier tenants and changes in neighborhoods, support the crackdown. Enough with the crackdown. Lift the cap.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.