When Evelia Coyotzi lost her job at McDonald’s in 2001, she began selling homemade tamales from a shopping cart in Corona, Queens. Twenty years later, Evelia’s Tamales has become a bustling small business on Roosevelt Avenue. When Anthony Bourdain visited Queens in 2016, he included Coyotzi’s stall on his list of neighborhood staples.
On her way to success, Coyotzi faced many challenges as a street vendor — including police harassment, multiple fines and more than 15 arrests for operating without a vendor’s permit. “I cried the first time,” Coyotzi remembers. “I was just making a living, and people really liked my tamales.”
With the New York City Council’s passage of a new bill on January 28th, vendors like Coyotzi may finally get relief. The highly anticipated legislation is set to issue 4,000 new permits over the next decade, allowing the number of legal street vendors to rise from 5,000 to 9,000. The new law also formally shifts regulation of vendors from the New York Police Department to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection in recognition of concerns of harassment and overcriminalization of low-level offenders.
On February 24, advocates, legislators and vendors met in a virtual town hall to discuss the changes in the law and the potential impact of the city’s first effort in nearly forty years to address systemic changes for vendors.
“The city needs to start recognizing street vendors as entrepreneurs who have put everything they have into their small businesses,” said Councilmember and bill co-sponsor Jimmy Van Brammer. “This bill is a historic victory and the beginning of a fight that continues.”
The legislation comes at a time when street vendors have been hit hard by the pandemic, which spread rapidly across low-income areas and drastically reduced foot traffic. According to a recent report by research-policy network Women in Informal Employment, most of the street vendor workforce, which is largely women of color and low-income immigrants, faced simultaneous work, income, housing, debt and health crises. Many received no economic assistance due to their immigration status. “Street vendors were left out of almost every relief program at every single level of government,” said bill co-sponsor Carlina Rivera during a Street Vendor Project rally last August.
To operate legally, street vendors are required to have both a food vendor license that allows them to collect sales tax and make wholesale purchases, plus a permit for the food cart. While the city can issue an unlimited number of vendor licenses, the number of permits issued was capped at 3,000 in the early 1980s and currently stands at 5,000.
With an estimated 20,000 vendors on the streets today, the low number of permits has fostered a lucrative underground market. The result? Coyotzi now has a permit, but she pays $18,000 every two years to lease from the owner who only pays $200 to renew it every two years. “It’s like a mafia because that’s still the only way to get one,” Coyotzi said on the lack of permits. “That’s why prices keep going up.”
Coyotzi’s uphill battle illustrates a larger problem for today’s vendors, most of whom must choose between operating without proper documentation or paying exorbitant prices for the right to work. “If you can’t afford this underground market price,” said Matthew Shapiro, legal director of the Street Vendor Project, “you’re taking a big risk and selling without a permit, potentially leading to thousands of dollars in fines, property confiscation, and even arrests.” said Matthew Shapiro.
María Muñoz, a single mother from Ecuador, took that risk for years to sell her native salchipapas and chicken skillets on Queens’ Roosevelt Avenue. She said she paid fines of around $15,000 a year before she bought a permit on the underground market in 2006 for $25,000 every two years. The new law gives her hope for greater security and income. “All I want is the chance to feed my family with dignity and safety,” said Muñoz. “Immigrants like me have asked the city for more permits for too many years.”
The new bill aims to both support and regulate the food vendor industry, which, according to a 2012 estimate, contributes nearly $300 million to the city’s economy, a number that has likely risen since. By gradually raising the number of permits, the law is expected to phase out the underground market dominated by absentee owners. Permits issued after July 2022, when the distribution is set to begin, will require that the owner be present at the cart at all times “The permits are currently stickers on food carts and trucks, and the person working in these units is not usually related to that permit,” said Shapiro. “These new permits will no longer be transferable.”
Vendors hope that the new law will allow them to stop spending so much of their revenues on leasing permits. José Moreno, chef and co-founder of the acclaimed food truck Birria Landia, said he has paid as much as $21,000 for a permit, in addition to expenses for a commissary kitchen, parking, storage and payroll. “We have so many expenses that people don’t even think about,” he said.
Moreno’s Tijuana-style birria tacos have garnered him a NYT review and lines so long at his original Jackson Heights location, he recently opened a second food truck in Brooklyn and has plans for a third one in the Bronx later this year. “Besides money, we face logistical challenges because we have to cook our food somewhere else,” said Moreno, “But our clients expect to see us in the same corner every day so we show up.”
Even though permits won’t be issued until 2022, discussion at last week’s town hall was generally positive and focused on the potential benefits street vendors will secure over time as they try to build their small businesses. Many successful stores and restaurants have started off as street vendors, Shapiro of the Street Vendor Project said in an interview. “It’s a way to incubate diverse businesses serving food from all around the world.”
Indeed, after so many years navigating the street vendor system, Coyotzi is finally close to opening an actual restaurant in the coming months. “It’s always been my mom’s dream to run her own restaurant,” said John García, Coyotzi’s son. “It hasn’t been easy for her, but her chance is finally here.”