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In NYC, Rules Push Some Food Vendors to Black Market

Black Market Vending in New York City
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Mohamed Barghash and his wife, Hoda, bring their cooking to lower Manhattan five days a week. The Egyptian-American couple has been feeding Wall Streeters from a window in the side of their rented silver food truck for 17 years. Overhead, lighted menu signs advertise gyros, falafel plates, fish plates, fish sandwiches, chicken plates, shish kebobs, and steak sandwiches.

Their food is popular. Over the years, the husband and wife team has built up a steady clientele, and made enough money to support themselves.

One of 20,000 street vendors in New York City, Mohamed Barghash is lucky enough to have a food vending license, but he also needs a Mobile Food Vending Permit (MFVP) to actually operate his kitchen on wheels. And this he can only rent in a black market underground operation. In addition to that rent, Barghash also pays a percentage of his sales to the permit holder.

There are 5,100 permit holders in New York and an estimated 70 to 80 percent of them — many are former food truck operators — pay the $200 cost of renewing their permits every two years and then rent them out for a big profit. Some would-be truck operators have to pay more than $20,000 for an MFVP.

There's been no change in the number of permits available since 1981, but there has been a huge change in the number of people wanting to operate food trucks.

FILE - A New York street vendor waits for customers to buy his winter hats and sweatshirts on Christmas Eve in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, Dec. 24, 2015.
FILE - A New York street vendor waits for customers to buy his winter hats and sweatshirts on Christmas Eve in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, Dec. 24, 2015.

Many vendors are working the streets without an MFVP. Having a license alone does not keep the police from giving out citations. Some of the citations call for fines of up to $1,000.

Fighting for vendors

Sean Basinski is the head of the Street Vendor Project. His job is to fight for the vendors. He is on a two-year campaign to persuade New York's City Council to issue permits to the vendor community.

"There's about a 15-year waiting list to get one properly from the city," he said.

Basinski accuses some city officials and the business community — that generally wants to limit street vending as much as possible — of denying rights to immigrants and dark-skin workers. Some 90 percent of street food vendors are immigrants.

The city's 72 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) see protecting established brick-and-mortar businesses as a priority. Secondarily, they set up rules for street vendors that include the hours they can sell and the locations they can sell.

Dan Pisark is one of the top officials of the 34th Street Partnership, which includes major department stores.

Pisark vehemently denies racism plays a role in the decisions of the BID. But he says that street vendors constantly violate rules, including the hours they work and where they do business. It is the city’s responsibility to come up with a new system for vendors, Pisark says.

"The people out there operating the carts are not the ones who have the permits,” he said. “They're hired hands. The people who have the permits, who knows where they live?"

Vendors' protests

Barghash believes, as do most of his fellow vendors, that "each one who has a license should have a permit under his name."

Vendors have been conducting ongoing protests at City Hall about the permitting system. For most, street vending is the only way to make a living.

"People got to live. They've got families. They got kids, children. You know, they've got to eat," said street vendor Bernard Thompson.

New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez says New Yorkers should know better than to criticize immigrants who want to work, make a living and take care of their families.

"There is not one New Yorker who is not an immigrant," he said. “Even if it's someone who their great-grandfather was Jewish, Irish, Italian, North American, who moved from the South, a new group of immigrants who came from Latin America, the former Soviet Union, or from Africa. … We are all immigrants in this city."