In 1981, NYC permanently capped the available number of food cart permits at 3,000. While the permits originally cost $200, vendors are now renting them on the black market for up to $25,000 annually.
Photos by the author.
Below the Junction Boulevard subway stop in Jackson Heights, a largely Latino and working-class community in Queens, Luis Bonilla and his wife Maria scoop fluorescent-hued ice cream cones with their cracked hands for ten hours each day. Since immigrating to the United States 16 years ago, the couple has sold their humble frozen treats in pursuit of the American Dream: owning their own modest business, and providing their five daughters with a better life than they would've had back in Ecuador.
But their goal—a far cry from that of their artisanal ice cream compatriots selling kale-flavored scoops to make a fun-filled buck—has been all too elusive thanks to a 34-year rule that caps the number permits available for food vending in New York City.
"We've been renting our permit," Bonilla told me one day recently, furrowing his brow beneath his beanie. "Right now we're paying $14,000. Then we get tickets from the police, the sanitation department for $1,300, $1,500. And we lose all that money we worked hard for."
The hardship faced by the Bonillas can be traced back to one of many of New York City's lobbyist-induced headaches. Back in 1981, real estate and corporate business moguls strong-armed the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to pass a law that permanently capped the available number of food cart permits at 3,000, plus an extra 1,000 seasonal permits.
At their original price, permits only cost vendors a one-time fee of $200, with a $75 renewal fee every two years. But thanks to scalpers doing what they do best—buying up a majority of the supply—the going rate just to rent a permit on the black market is anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 per year. Only a few citation tickets from the Department of Health or the police—many of which cost vendors over $1,000—can deal a serious blow to a vendor's bottom line. In the face of these costs, some vendors, such as The Cinnamon Snail, have simply decided to close up shop.
This year, however, food vendors across New York City are working with advocates such as the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Institute to crack open the cap and allow more permits to enter circulation.
"In order to get the law passed, you have to meet with every city council member, and we've met with almost all of them to explain why we need to remove the cap," said Sean Basinski, the president and founder of the Street Vendor Project. He cited Mayor Bill de Blasio's progressive equality position as a reason to address the vendor permit cap now. A rally was held on September 22 to put pressure on the City Council to introduce a bill to change the caps, with street vendors from all boroughs coming together to voice their concerns. "We're fighting on neighborhood levels. The BIDs [Business Improvement Districts] are going around to community boards to ask them to oppose our efforts."
As public/private partnerships developed to revitalize neighborhoods, BIDs often sweep up street food vendors—which take up sidewalk or road space and can encourage littering—with the broom of renovation.
"BIDs tend to interact with street vendors in their neighborhood," said Ryan Devlin, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, adding that "They tend to be anti-vendor, or at least want to limit vending as much as possible."
Arthur Teiler, a member of the Community Board in Queens' Community District 3, where the Bonillas sell their ice cream, maintained a neutral stance when speaking about the 82nd Street Partnership in Jackson Heights.
"There's people who are on both sides of that issue," he said over the phone. "Some feel it's good. Some feel it's just gonna disrupt the way the neighborhood is … We haven't had a vote on it."
Some restaurants owners, however, vocally oppose the idea of more food vendors entering the business. Manuel Aucay, the owner of 12 Corazones in Jackson Heights, believes that food vendors are unfair competition.
"We pay rents! We pay lights! We pay taxes!" Aucay shouted inside the bar, his face turning red. "And then we have to compete with their cheap prices."
But Aucay's sentiment, one that was echoed by many restaurant and real estate owners that I spoke to, is largely unfounded. The Institute for Justice released a report this month that found that vendors in 2012 did their fair share contributing taxes—namely, a cool $71.2 million in city, state, and federal taxes. Additionally, they contributed nearly $293 million to the local economy.
Despite that, many still view vendors as leeches to the system, and the fight for lifting the cap is just heating up.
"We all have to work," Bonilla stated proudly. "We work for our daughters' security."