Council Reevaluates Street Vendor Rules

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The City Council waded into the issue of how much street vendors should be fined for infractions large and small. There was a committee hearing on several bills, including one that would decrease the maximum fine levied on vendors from $1,000 to $250, and another that would revise the escalating fine structure.

Muhammed Saad Ali, a vendor for more than 14 years, has supported his wife and three kids from his work selling food. He said excessive fines have made it difficult to renew his license. “One year I had to pay $2,000, another year I had to pay $3,000 to renew my license,” he explained. He received violations for various offenses, such as vending too close to a crosswalk or on a restricted street.

“It was extremely difficult for me to pay these fines but I had no other choice,” he said. “If I didn’t renew my vendor license I wouldn’t have work and my family wouldn’t have survived."

Under current city rules, vendors can get a $1,000 fine if they violate any of the city’s vendor laws three times in a two year period. The violations can range from failing to display a permit to being too close to a crosswalk. One of the bills under consideration would only escalate fines if the vendor had multiple violations for the same offense within a two year period.

Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito asked Bloomberg administration officials if the aim of punitive fines was to drive vendors off the streets and criminalize the poor who are just trying to work.

She added that the city could actually collect more if fines were not too excessive.  She pointed to a University of Wisconsin Department of Urban and Regional planning study that found street vendors from 2006-2010 paid fines of $399 or below 47 percent of the time. Fines of $800 or more were paid only about 7 percent of the time.

But some residents argued that reducing the fine will encourage non-compliant behavior. Michele Birnbaum, who lives in Community Board 8 in the Upper East Side, does not think the current fee structure has been punitive. She argues if high fines do adversely affect vendors claiming to be low income then they wouldn’t be able to pay as much as $1,200 a month to rent a cart.  

While much of the discussion centered on fines, other vending bills discussed at the hearing included one that would require reports about the number of vendor violations and the fines imposed. A series of other bills would limit the locations of where cards or vendors can set up.

Davit Mkrtchyan, a vendor in Times Square area, said if rules against street vendors setting up near doors, exits, entrances to both residential and commercial buildings are tightened, many will be negatively impacted. “Too many hardworking people, immigrants, veterans, single parents — will be out of work,” he said.