Mayor Bill de Blasio is defending his decision to dispatch the NYPD to eject illegal street vendors in commercial strips, following an enforcement sweep in the bustling Fordham section of the Bronx this week. The police-led sweep came despite an order by de Blasio this year that no longer designated the NYPD as the lead enforcement agency on street vending rules.
On his regular Friday appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio didn’t specifically cite the incident where unlicensed food and non-food vendors were told to leave Fordham Plaza on Wednesday, but said any vendor not complying with civilian agencies to leave will be ordered to by the NYPD. Currently, the main agency tasked to enforce street vending is the Department of Consumer and Worker Protections (formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs).
“When Department of Consumer and Worker Protections inspectors go out and address issues and the vendors comply, there’s nothing involving the NYPD,” de Blasio said. “Unfortunately, the world is not black-and-white. And so we have vendors who are acting illegally, who refuse to respond to civilian inspectors and won’t give their information, won’t give their ID, won’t address the thing they’re doing that’s illegal. If that happens, then we send in the NYPD.”
De Blasio argued that unsanctioned vendors take business away from nearby mom-and-pop establishments.
His comments came shortly after nearly two dozen city and state legislators along with advocacy groups sent a letter to de Blasio criticizing his decision to send NYPD officers to Fordham on Wednesday. According to the New York Post, officers forced vendors to pack up and leave if they didn’t have a valid vendor license or none at all.
On Friday, NYPD officers returned to the commercial strip, though they were accompanied by a DCWP inspector conducting surprise checks, according to the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group that’s called for greater street vendor protections. It’s unclear whether any were issued summonses.
Street vendors in Queens have also been targeted by the NYPD. At a rally in the Corona last month, legislators and street vendors called out the city for beginning to re-enforce unlicensed food vending on June 1st following a hiatus due to the pandemic.
Fines for unlicensed food vending run upwards of $1,000, while selling general merchandise without a permit carries a $250 fine. Currently, there’s a bill in the state Senate that would legalize street vending without a permit. DCWP has also carried out enforcement actions in Times Square.
Street vendors have long played an important role in our city, yet a broken vending system has forced most to operate without a license, then criminalized them for trying to make a living@NYCMayor must support all small businesses to recover & stop NYPD’s involvement in vending pic.twitter.com/DtIU5BrtqZ
— StreetVendorProject (@VendorPower) July 23, 2021
In their letter, legislators and advocates accused de Blasio of violating the new order that took effect on January 21st, 2021 mandating the NYPD no longer serve as the lead agency for street vending enforcement. Officers can continue to enforce “any observed crimes, traffic conditions and public safety issues that involve vendors,” according to the new rule. But one passage of the rule, however, allows the NYPD to enforce street vending under a vague set of “exigent circumstances.”
“You cannot continue a vending system that is inherently inequitable and then rain down police to enforce it,” read the letter. “The only thing accomplished by calling for punitive enforcement on unlicensed street vendors is the reinforcement of a system that criminalizes poverty, rather than supporting entrepreneurship so desperately needed to stimulate the economy.”
According to the Street Vending Project, active general street vendor permits are capped at 853 for all five boroughs. That number has been in place since the 1980s, and the waiting list is comprised of thousands of prospective vendors. While there is no cap in the number of food vending permits, the only way to obtain a license is through an online course that’s made available only in English, effectively cutting out non-English speaking New Yorkers hoping to get a permit.
Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vending Project, said vendors are often hit with steep fines upwards of $2,000 or more for unlicensed street vending, putting vendors even further into debt.
“Vendors who don’t have a permit or license through no fault of their own are [receiving] tickets and fines just for simply trying to provide for their family and trying to work as,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said.
Wilma Alonso, co-executive director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District, said on any given day she’s counted roughly 300 vendors. She expressed sympathy to unlicensed vendors but called their presence a “public safety crisis” since many are obstructing sidewalks.
“We understand that currently there’s no way that they can apply for licenses. So they cannot be become legal vendors in a day,” Alonso said. “Just holding off on any type of enforcement is not sustainable anymore.”