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“The people with permits, they are not working. We vendors on the streets, we need more permits,” yelled Mehdi, a New York street vendor of Bengali origin, at a recent protest for more permits. Street vending in the city – in particular food vending – is largely the domain of immigrants like Mehdi, seemingly an easy way to start earning an income.

But selling food from a street cart is no easy ride. Sean Basinski, Director of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates on behalf of street-based sellers, says food vendor licenses are relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire. There is no cap on the number of food licenses issued. There’s a catch, though. To sell food, in addition to a food license you must also acquire a permit for the food cart. But the number of permits allowed across the five boroughs has been capped at 3,000 since 1981. It can take up to 30 years for a food permit to become available.

The permit wait list opens up infrequently, usually due to political pressure. This last happened in 2004, when the city decided to do a lottery for the few available permits. Luis Alfonso Marin, a Colombian arepa vendor in Queens, recounted that “for 16 years I had to hustle to make a living without the protection of a permit.”

Consequently, the sale of permits today takes place primarily on the black market – version of the “padrone” or contract labor system that existed at the turn of the 20th century. Currently, the normally $200 permit can go for up to $25,000 on the black market. “We have two choices: to sell illegally or enter the black market,” Muhammad Attia, another street vendor activist, says. “We want to work legally, give us more permits.” Vendors, activists and their allies across New York City are calling for an increase in the number of permits allowed – the Lift the Caps! Campaign.

Whether anything will change is now up to the 51 New York City Council members. Rumor has it that a draft bill addressing New York street vendors’ demands is making the rounds.

(Additional funding for this piece was provided by the Buenas Obras Fund)

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