Street Vending Woes in the City that Never Sleeps

Street vending is an integral part of the New York City experience. From I ❤ NY shirts, to hot dogs, to American flags and everything in between, street vending has been a fixture of New York City life for centuries.

Why then do the city government and the NYPD make life as difficult as possible for these entrepreneurs?

Consider the story of Chun Yin, a Chinese immigrant who supports her children and ailing husband by setting up shop on the corners of Chinatown. Since arriving in the United States in 2000, Ms. Yin has been arrested over 30 times as she struggled to take over the business for her husband, Chee Fei Cheng, who suffered a stroke that same year. Arcane laws regulating prized general vending licenses, along with bureaucrat-imposed scarcity, made it impossible for Ms. Yin to transfer the license to her name or to receive a new one.

The end result is a mother of two children, one of whom has autism, and wife of an ailing husband constantly being jailed, fined, and forced to do community service for trying to make a living. The suffering of the Yin family eventually got the attention of the New York Times, borough presidents and Councilmember Margaret Chin, who together were able to persuade Julie Menin, commissioner of consumer affairs, to approve a temporary transfer of the license to Ms. Yin while the department drafted new rules.

Though she no longer has to worry, others are mired in the same cycle. As the city has kept the number of non-veteran general vending licenses static at 853 since 1979, with 1,800 applicants on a waiting list that’s been closed since 1993. The citations and arrests continue:

“Selling goods without a license is a misdemeanor; officers have discretion to merely issue a summons or to make an arrest. In recent months, vendors in Chinatown selling items like 1.2-ounce bottles of liquid plant food, plastic lotus flowers, ceramic bobble-headed turtles, tube socks and red envelopes used for offerings during the celebration of the Lunar New Year, have been handcuffed, fingerprinted and taken to jail.
A police spokesman declined to comment on Ms. Yin’s cases, but said that 7,230 summonses were issued for unlicensed vendors in 2013. In the same year, the criminal courts processed arraignments for 1,905 arrests for selling goods without a license, according to the courts’ administrative office.”

In addition, street vendors face harassment from the NYPD, whose recognizable “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect” motto on each vehicle is a foreign concept to these hardworking entrepreneurs. Street vendors have also taken a back seat to bureaucratic considerations such as bike-share installations. Recently, 15 families lost access to their usual vending locations on Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan because of the installment of a bike share station, without any consultation or notice.

Rather than being celebrated as hardworking entrepreneurs in a sluggish economy, street vendors have instead become low-hanging fruit for the NYPD and an afterthought for bureaucrats who limit their opportunities and actively displace them.
Unfortunately, NYC street vendors aren’t the only ones being harassed, stymied, and otherwise left in disarray by various governments. Visit our nationwide vending page and learn more about how vendors are being affected by laws and regulations across the country.

— Javier Sosa
Javier Sosa is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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