New York City Council

NYC Council mulls removing limits to street vendor licenses

At a hearing Wednesday, council members discussed how to legitimize vendors as small businesses.

A package of proposed legislation would increase access to street vendor licenses.

A package of proposed legislation would increase access to street vendor licenses. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New York City Council is considering a package of legislation aimed at overhauling regulations for street vendors, including a bill that would prohibit criminal penalties for street vending and a sweeping measure intended to lift the city’s cap on vendor licenses.

Intro 270, the most ambitious bill in the legislative package, would allow thousands of additional street vendors to begin operating legally. Over the course of a phased five-year process, the city would be required to release a minimum of 1,500 food vendor licenses and 1,500 merchandise licenses each year. The cap would be lifted entirely at the end of that five-year timeline, effectively ending what’s long been a severely backlogged system and bringing thousands of vendors who’ve been operating off-the-books into compliance – something that’s long been sought by vendors and supporters. The number of general licenses is currently capped at 853 while food vending licenses hover around 3,000.

“Street vending in New York City is broken. Vendors who are striving to earn an honest living through hard work, they deserve our support as policymakers and they deserve a fair chance. Unfortunately, the system that we have today lacks effective regulation,” said City Council Member Pierina Sanchez, sponsor of the cap-lifting bill, at an oversight hearing Wednesday afternoon. While the legislation wasn’t formally considered Wednesday, it was still alluded to and mentioned on several occasions throughout the hearing. Discussion of the bill won’t be heard until the new year, according to Sanchez. 

While the idea is popular with vendors and immigrant advocates, it faces strong opposition from brick-and-mortar business owners who contend eased vending rules will lead to greater competition and congested sidewalks. Rollout of a law passed in 2021 to expand food vendor licenses by 445 each year has been slow and fallen far from meeting mandated benchmarks. 

Measures in the package that were discussed Wednesday face similar opposition. One of the bills, Intro 1264, would “decriminalize” street vending by barring criminal penalties for illegal vending and require a more lenient civil penalty instead.  “Our street vendors operate in a legal system that is at best confusing with a lack of clear rules, regulations, organization, and at worst punitive, resulting in criminal summonses, arrests, and the consequences that can come along with that,” bill sponsor Council Member Shekar Krishnan said. Other measures pertained to where vendors can be located and education about rules and regulations.

According to a City Council spokesperson, the package won’t pass this session, meaning the bills will need to be reintroduced in the new year.

The New York City Street Vendor Justice Coalition says the bill to lift the cap would allow better regulation of street vendors while helping workers avoid underground markets. The other measures, while appreciated, only go so far in protecting the city’s network of street vendors.

“As our City’s smallest businesses, street vendors reflect the great diversity of our communities, and are a true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit of our city,” the coalition said in a statement. “Innovating, creating, and investing in our local economies, vendors are out every day to provide for their families and feed their neighbors.”

City officials from the Health, Sanitation and Worker Protection departments testifying at the hearing said they are not prepared to speak about the bill at this time.

“I think we need to lift the cap and I look forward to more conversation on that,” Sanchez said.  “New York City is the only jurisdiction that regulates street vendors with a cap system in the way that we do. It's not working for us. Nobody else does it.”