Food Cart Owners Risk Getting Arrested

HOST INTRO: Food carts are an iconic part New York City. Police, however, arrest food cart owners and other street vendors nearly 10,000 times every year for operating without a permit. Chris Mathias reports on why so many street cart vendors have to operate without a permit in order to make a profit.

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Mohammed Attia works at a food cart on the busy corner of 7th Avenue and 43rd Street in Times Square. He sells hot dogs, pretzels, bottles of water and soda.

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He says cops see street vendors as easy targets, ticketing them for the most minor of infractions.

ATTIA: He came down to inspect me. I was working here at this cart. He found everything clean. The temperature perfect. And then he got a measurement tool to measure the distance from the sidewalk to my cart. He found 9 feet and 10 inches. Just like two or three inches less than the 10 feet that is the legal thing.

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He says cops give some vendors a ticket every day. It really cuts into their profits. On a good day, they make only $100 in profit. Tickets can cost them up to $500.

ATTIA: Who’s going to make $500 a day?!

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But the fines are small compared to the hassle and cost of being arrested.  The problem, vendors say, is there simply aren’t enough street vendor permits. On any given day, there may be up to 15,000 vendors in New York operating without a permit. That’s because the permits are just too expensive for most vendors.

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Food truck owner Adam Sobel attended a gathering of street vendors this morning at CUNY. He says the city no longer issues permits. This has created a black market in which those with permits rent them out for high prices.

 ADAM: In the early 80s a cap was placed on the permits, which basically meant that anyone who had a permit at that time could continue renewing it for about 100$ a year. And those permits, because it’s a supply and demand thing, now rent for $10,000 a year.

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In other words, the city isn’t regulating the price. The black market is. High prices aren’t the only problem with illegally renting a permit on the black market.  Every two years, when food carts go up for re-inspection, the city requires that the actual permit holder to be there. For the thousands of vendors like Adam who rent their permit, this can be a big problem.

ADAM: For instance, our permit holder lives in Pakistan. When we have to get him to our re-inspection, it may take a month to get him to New York City. It’s ridiculous.

This is all too much for any street vendor to handle,  says Sean Basinsky. Especially considering that so many are immigrants who speak little English. Basinsky is the director of an advocacy group called the Street Vendors Project. He says it’s time for vendors to be recognized as workers.

BASINSKY: Folks are starting to see vendors as part of that continuum, as working people who are struggling, who are organizing.

This morning’s event, Basinsky says, was the launch of a new campaign to get City Council to make things easier for street vendors.

BASINSKY: We need more licenses and permits. The cap has to be raised or eliminated. It’s going to give people the opportunity to work. It’s going to decrease inequality in our city. It’s going to create jobs. Not everyone, however wants more street vendors. Dan Biederman works at the 34th Street Business Improvement District.

BIEDERMAN: There are too many carts. They’re all over the place, blocking the sidewalk. The locations are all wrong. They’re picked by the vendors themselves. The carts are much too big. And they’re the ugliest carts you can imagine.

He’ll have to bring it up with city council. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito says she’d considering legislation to increase the number of street vendor permits.

Chris Mathias, Columbia Radio News.

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