New York City must stop putting roadblocks in the way of entrepreneurs
From halal carts to rolling lobster shacks, street vendors are the lifeblood of New York City — and they are slowly being strangled by red tape. Sidewalk chefs who have already been licensed individually must still obtain a permit to serve food from a cart or a truck citywide. These vending permits have been capped since the 1980s at around 4,000, even as the city has grown, leading to a decade-long waiting list and a flourishing black market.
Previous attempts to lift this cap have been opposed by landlords and big business, but now street vendors are mounting another fight to loosen the city’s stranglehold on their mobile small businesses. It must succeed.
Recent legislation proposed by Councilwoman Margaret Chin would allow for 400 new food vending permits to be issued every year for the next decade, plus another 45 permits exclusively for veteran entrepreneurs. It creates a new Office of Street Vendor Enforcement to enforce laws already on the books, while helping legalize the 10,000 to 12,000 food vendors believed to be operating without a license in the city. Lifting the cap comes at a cost; renewal fees would be doubled to $400 every two years, and the bill creates a new license for an on-site supervisor and an advisory board stuffed with non-vendors. But vendors rightly believe that freer markets are better than black markets.
Street vending permits cost roughly $25,000 on the black market today, which eats into profits and forces vendors to cluster into high-value sites. There they are harassed constantly by landlords, meter maids, and city agencies treating them as cash cows to be milked for fines. These burdens fall disproportionately on working-class minorities, immigrants and veterans operating on thin margins and long hours.
“You kind of have to be crazy to have a food truck in New York,” confessed Adam Sobel, the owner of a shuttered vegan food truck.
Nevertheless, street vendors persist, and they are far from alone. New York City’s brick-and-mortar restaurateurs, who may have once been vending’s greatest opponents, are increasingly stepping out to vend in the face of sky-high commercial rents. They realize too that carts and pop-up shops serve as a lively antidote to deadened streets and shuttered storefronts. Already, New York City is falling far behind America’s other large cities in embracing food trucks and carts. Los Angeles recently lifted its cap on street vending; upwards of 50,000 budding entrepreneurs are expected to apply for permits, a sign of latent demand.
An attempt in 2017 to allow more street vending in New York City failed in the face of opposition by developers, landlords and business improvement districts. They saw these small entrepreneurs as moochers, even though numerous studies have shown vendors boosting foot traffic and variety of brick-and-mortar establishments. Now opponents resort to the “Not In My Backyard” stance typical of incumbents wary of newcomers; there are cries of unfairness, calls for more studies and complaints about externalities like crowding. The fact that every other city in America has figured out how to balance community needs with a freer market for sidewalk entrepreneurs somehow escapes these critics.
New York City should be doing far more to support entrepreneurs of all stripes. Starting a business in America’s largest city is a Kafkaesque nightmare governed by some 6,000 rules, 250 licenses and permits, and 15 agencies. The city’s controller found that restaurateurs need an average of 30 permits and 23 inspections just to get started, burdens which are compounded for sidewalk vendors. Established businesses are better equipped to navigate these complexities, while highly-educated startup founders are being showered in city dollars. New York City typifies the regulatory inequalities facing working-class and minority entrepreneurs in this country, and none more so than with its sidewalk chefs.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
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