Will the city’s unlicensed vendors find legitimacy?

HOST 1: If you want to buy something in New York City, you don’t necessarily need to go into a store. There are some 10 000 street vendors in the city, and they sell everything, from jewelry to hot dogs.

HOST 2: But it’s estimated that as many as half of these are operating without licenses or permits. Illegal street vendors face a constant risk of arrests and fines. But some organisations are trying to make selling stuff on the streets of NYC more legal. Alistair Gardiner reports.

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When you talk about street vending, one of the first things you need to know is that in the late 70s, the City Council put a cap on licenses at just over 850. And the waiting list grew so long that Department of Consumer Affairs closed it in 1992. That makes for a pretty big black market for renting licences. And that means many street vendors operate illegally.

AMBI: murmuring from the meeting.

On a recent Tuesday night, about 15 street vendors are at an information session in the financial district.

SVP REP: So welcome everybody. This is a Know Your Rights Workshop for the Street Vendors Project

The Street Vendor Project is a non-profit that advocates on behalf of vendors. Tonight’s workshop focuses on helping vendors know their rights. Matthew Shapiro is the Street Vendor Project’s attorney and he has a translator.

SHAPIRO: Here’s one example for the crosswalk. Ten feet, right? Everyone knows, ten feet from the crosswalk, but sometimes the police think that this is the crosswalk, but it’s not true. The crosswalk is here.

Paying attention to details like this are just another thing Heleador Viver has to deal with each day. She’s originally from Mexico and has been selling merchandise on the street for 8 years. Some of the folks here are first timers, but Viver has been active with Street Vendor Project for a few years now.

VIVER: I sell a little bit of artisanal crafts that I bring from Mexico, I make bracelets, earrings, necklaces  and a little that I buy from the stores.

Viver sells her goods without a licence, which means she also has to keep an eye out for the police.

VIVER: That’s an instability, it’s gives you a level stress. Because every day you go out, you never know if in that moment, the police are going to come or not. You’re always insecure.

Viver’s never been arrested, though she has been fined many times. Many llegal food vendors make less than $100 a day, so a $500 fine can be a whole week’s wages. If a vendor finds herself with too many tickets, Basma Eid might be able to help. She’s an organizer at the Street Vendor Project – she says they work a bit like a union – defending vendors in court when necessary.

BASMA: A lot of times, our members or vendors will be arrested when they’re not actually breaking the law. And so when this happens we’ve actually sued the city and through litigation we’ve made some pretty big wins for our members.

They’re also involved in campaigning for policy change. And they’ve had success in the past couple of years.

BASMA: We were able to lower the fines that street vendors were getting.

lowered from $1000 to $500 a pop.Vendors can get fined for anything from being too close to a bus stop or a curb or a crosswalk to not disposing of their trash properly. But for the past year, the organisation has been trying to tackle the root of this problem.

BASMA: Big picture things is that we’re working on increasing the number of permits and licences that are available to street vendors.

And they’re no longer the only ones fighting for this. A few weeks ago, Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer unveiled a number of proposals to help small business – including street vendors.

BREWER: Right, it’s part of the notion that we should have more mom’n’pop stores in the city of New York. And vendors are certainly part of it.

One of her favorite examples is the Halal Guys, who went from running a cart to setting up a couple of restaurants.

BREWER: It’s in the context of this support for the edgy fabulous food and the edgy fabulous retail that New York City’s famous for, we just don’t want to lose it.

It doesn’t look like the city will lose its street vendors any time soon. Dondi Bubbles is a licenced merchandise vendor. And just across the street from where he sells bubble-blowers on Broadway and Spring, he keeps an eye on two women who sell food illegally.

BUBBLES: I remember last summer when I was vending in Soho, we have these wonderful ladies. They sell mangos.

Bubbles has seen how tough working life is for these women, but they remain undaunted.

BUBBLES: The health department came out with the police and shut them down and they took their products from them. Lo and behold the next day they’re out with another little cart, pushing it down the street. And they have their mangos.

For many street vendors, this is one of the few ways they can make money. Arrests won’t stop them, so even if the cap on permits isn’t raised, you’ll still be able to get mangos somewhere around the city.

Alistair Gardiner, Columbia Radio News.

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