New York City recently cracked down on street vendors in Queens’ Corona Plaza because they said vendors were operating without licenses. In an impassioned speech, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents Corona Plaza, said New York City “need[s] to increase the number of licenses” for street vendors. “Don’t tell people to get licenses when they haven’t been given for 10 years. It is unrealistic. It is ridiculous,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez is right—it’s ridiculous for city officials to demand that vendors obtain permits to operate when those licenses are unobtainable. The solution, however, isn’t simply raising the limit—it’s abolishing the cap entirely.

New York City has capped the total number of available mobile food vending permits at 5,100, in a city where there’s at least 20,000 street vendors, according to one estimate. Worse yet, the city has made just 853 licenses available for non-veteran merchants to sell merchandise, creating a waitlist so long that obtaining a permit has been nearly impossible for more than a decade.

New York City’s caps are arbitrary limits that do nothing more than stop individuals’ ability to earn an honest living and penalize merchants for the city’s failings. Moreover, the city often forces well-meaning small business owners into the black market to find ways to survive. Most vendors (roughly 70%-80%) rent permits from others at significant costs—upwards of $20,000 for a hot dog cart and $30,000 for a food truck, according to one report from 2016. These vendors want to operate within the guidelines, according to their association, but the city won’t give them a pathway to do so.

“Street vendors improve areas and make them safer,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) Senior Attorney Justin Pearson. “When these types of crackdowns happen, they are almost never for legitimate reasons.”

Street vendors are part of the recipe that makes New York City special. The vendors of Corona Plaza collectively were named as one of the city’s 100 best restaurants in 2023 by The New York Times. Ranked 48th, it beat out thousands of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

New York City officials say its crackdown was in the name of health and safety, but street vendors oftentimes average fewer sanitation violations than brick-and-mortar establishments, create opportunities for minority communities, and form vibrant markets that dazzle the senses, according to IJ’s “Street Eats, Safe Eats” report.

Every year, street vending creates thousands of jobs, often for immigrants, which give individuals a chance to create a new life for themselves. IJ’s “Upwardly Mobile” report found that in New York City alone, vendors supported nearly 18,000 jobs, contributed more than $190 million in wages, and paid $71.2 million in local, state, and federal taxes. Imagine what those figures could look like if New York City got out of its own way.

A city law passed in 2021 requires officials to release another 445 food vending licenses every year over the next decade, but molasses has moved faster than the city’s rollout of these new permits: only 104 new licenses have been issued since 2021, according to The New York Times.

Rather than raise the cap at a snail’s pace, New York City should eliminate it, and give vendors the ability to provide their families with a better life.

New York City is a hub for the world’s free market and culinary scene. People come to New York City with the hopes of achieving the American Dream. For many, that journey starts with street vending. It is time for New York City officials to wake up and smell what’s cooking. Don’t just raise the cap, New York City—eliminate it entirely.