The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) took over as the main city agency handling street vendor enforcement last June. But the NYPD remains active in enforcement, too. Together, the agencies issued 2,427 tickets to vendors during the year ending in May, a 33 percent increase compared to 2019, when the police alone issued 1,609 tickets.
It doesn’t take much for the street vendors on Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, to spot a Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) agent—who will soon start handing out tickets.
Although the agents are dressed in civilian clothes, they’re identifiable among the crowds of pedestrians for their nonchalant-but-observant demeanor and the electronic tables they carry, vendors say.
On July 1, several vendors in the area were ticketed: a fruit and vegetable seller because she was using more space than allowed; another because her license was expired; a veteran who sells hats and toys because he was not within the required 20 feet away from a nearby store entrance.
There were other vendors who, upon recognizing the agents, did not unpack their wares for fear of receiving a fine.
City Limits has collected data for inspections, complaints and tickets handled by DCWP—formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA)—from June 1, 2021, to May 31, 2022, nearly the first full year since the agency took over the main task of vendor enforcement from the NYPD (the switch was officially made in January 2021, but DCWP only actively began issuing tickets in June of last year, having spent the first several months conducting outreach and education instead).
During the first year, DCWP issued almost as many tickets to vendors as numbers reported by the NYPD in the year before the pandemic: 1,463 tickets versus 1,609 in 2019.
But police remain involved in vendor enforcement too, despite former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to take them out of the process in response to years of complaints by the predominantly immigrant vendor workforce, who said they felt harassed and targeted by officers.
Together, the two city agencies issued 2,427 fines to vendors during this most recent 12-month period, a 33 percent increase compared to 2019, when the police alone issued 1,609 tickets. These recent figures do not include the latest police summons numbers for the second quarter of 2022, so the total will be even higher. In July 2021, the number of enforcement staff at DCWP was eight; by October it had grown to 24, remaining the same since.
“The point of moving street vendor enforcement out of the NYPD was to reduce ticketing violations,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif, chair of the immigration committee. “Sadly, we are seeing the opposite play out.”
Jackson Heights was the most ticketed zip code for vendors during the first year of DCWP enforcement, totaling 162 tickets (76 in 2021 and 86 in 2022).
On that first Friday afternoon of July on Roosevelt Avenue, DCWP officers did not approach every single vendor lining the street. Instead, they approached one here and there, including a veteran selling baseball caps, wallets, and small teddy bears.
He later received a ticket for not being 20 feet from the front entrance of a store on Junction Avenue, as required by city rules. Agents on the ground, who used a measuring tape to check the vendor’s compliance, did not comment when a City Limits’ reporter on the scene asked about the agency’s inspection process.
Where the complaints are
In the past, DCWP has argued that enforcement is often a response to complaints—from the general public, elected officials, community boards, and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which have historically viewed vendors as competition to brick-and-mortar businesses.
However, neighborhoods with the most complaints do not match neatly to those with the most tickets and in some cases, the most inspections. Chelsea, for example, was the center of vending complaints received by the city, with a high of 1,497 during the 12-month period City Limits examined, but vendors there received only 65 tickets during that time. Coney Island, likewise, had the second highest number of complaints in the same time period, but only saw 12 tickets.
In contrast, the DCWP received 257 complaints about vendors in Jackson Heights—less than one-fifth of the number it received about vendors in Chelsea—but doled out 162 tickets there during the first full year of enforcement, positioning the majority-immigrant Queens neighborhood as the most ticketed in this period.
“Summonses,” DCWP spokesperson Abby Lootens said in an email, “are issued when vendors refuse to correct violations and are more commonly issued in areas where vendors repeatedly ignore DCWP inspector instructions.”
But a similar mismatch between where complaints were received and where inspections took place is unfolding in 2022, data shows. With the exception of Chelsea, which is among the top five neighborhoods for both vendor complaints and inspections so far this year, the other zip codes that garnered the most complaints from the public were not the most inspected. Areas most frequently hit by DCWP inspectors during the first five months of the year include immigrant-rich neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Elmhurst and Corona.
|DCWP Totals For 2022 So Far (as of May 31)|
|Borough||Total Complaints||Total Inspections||Total Tickets|
|Unknown/Out of NYC||62||2||1|
Queens saw a whopping 2,192 inspections so far this year—crowning it as the most inspected borough—but accounted for only 351 vending complaints, compared to 2,362 complaints lodged about Manhattan vendors.
“Yet again, we are seeing another report of increased ticketing of working-class immigrants who are simply trying to provide for their families,” Councilmember Hanif said. “It is clear the small procedural changes passed on the City level have not worked to end the racist harassment street vendors continually face at the hands of City bureaucracy.”
A DCWP spokesperson insisted that inspection locations are identified in response to complaints.
|10004||254||Southern tip of Manhattan and Governors Island|
“Repeat inspections are conducted on streets and in areas with a large number of vendors and/or repeated non-compliance,” Lootens said. Indeed, some neighborhoods have seen an uptick in the number of vendors operating there since the pandemic began. Corona Plaza, for example, has seen an influx of new sellers, The City reported this week.
“These numbers validate what we see every day on the streets,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project. During the peak of the pandemic, vendors were celebrated as essential workers, but now they are penalized, she argued.
According to the Jackson Height veteran, the ticket he received earlier this month was his first after a couple of years of working at the same spot on Junction Boulevard.
“I thought it would be a warning,” said the vendor, who did not want to be identified by name.
After measuring the distance from the front store to the street vendor’s table, inspectors handed him a ticket.
According to DCWP, joint inspections with the NYPD vary from week to week. This year, police have been involved in approximately 15 percent of vendor inspections, the agency said.
Not the change they hoped for
Advocates and vendors, many of whom are immigrants or people of color, thought the days of overly-punitive enforcement might be over when former Mayor Bill de Blasio put DCWP in charge of oversight functions previously performed by the NYPD alone.
Vendors and those who advocate for them say the continued pace of ticketing has made it harder for those who work in the sector to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Senate District 13, which overlaps with many of the zip codes with high rates of NYPD activity related to street vending enforcement, was also the national epicenter of the pandemic,” said Senator Jessica Ramos’ Communications Director, Astrid Aune.
“Many of our constituents were ineligible for pandemic relief because of their immigration status or work classification, and they took to the honest work of street vending because they needed a way to pay bills. They are not the first to do this, nor will they be the last—street vending is as old as New York,” she explained.
Both Hanif and senator Ramos’ office insisted on the importance of removing the cap on street vending permits in New York, which for decades has made it extremely difficult for vendors to operate legally, since demand greatly exceeds the small number of available permits, which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.
The City Council voted last year to reform the system by issuing an additional 400 permits each year for a decade, increases that were supposed to happen this summer, but have hit delays.
But advocates and some lawmakers say that change wouldn’t be enough to truly overhaul how street vending operates in New York, prompting Ramos to sponsor a bill this year that would have eliminated the permit cap altogether.
“The data surrounding tickets, summons, and general enforcement lays out precisely why our office has attempted to legislate a path to formalization for street vendors,” said Aune.
But Ramos’ bill did not pass in the most recent legislative session, pushing the issue to lawmakers in 2023, unless the City Council takes it up again.
“It’s far past time we pass Senator Ramos’s bill to end the archaic cap on vending licenses and bring thousands of hard-working New Yorkers out of this shadow economy,” Hanif added.