Street Vendor Wars and the Mayoral Race

Andrew Yang gets himself into fresh trouble

Andrew Yang is an unusual front-runner in this race for mayor of New York City. He is polling ahead of the field and gets a warm reception when he’s out in the streets, but seems to kick up a new controversy every week or two. Unlike most leading candidates, he has no experience in municipal government. Some criticisms of him have serious merit; others don’t. Many of these controversies have been a function of Yang’s Twitter account, where two million people follow him. He’ll tweet himself into a corner—or at least find a way to enrage a constituency.

“You know what I hear over and over again - that NYC is not enforcing rules against unlicensed street vendors. I’m for increasing licenses but we should do more for the retailers who are paying rent and trying to survive,” Yang tweeted Sunday. “I’d like to bring more unlicensed vendors into the legal market. Education for immigrant/non English speaking vendors on rules of vending, opening more spaces for legal outdoor vending, working with small businesses to broker tensions all would help.”

The tweet drew immediate outrage on the left. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, went viral when he rebuked Yang. “I, for one, will not send undocumented New Yorkers to Rikers for selling churros,” Stringer tweeted, racking up 20,000 likes. Maya Wiley, another mayoral candidate vying for leftist votes, criticized Yang as well: “Who exactly are you listening to? The New Yorkers I’m listening to don’t think vendors in the subway are THE problem. The over-policing of vendors is an example of broken windows policing gone wrong and of misplaced priorities and resources. You should not go to jail for vending.”

Stringer and Wiley were correct: there’s no pressing need to cripple the businesses of street vendors, who largely belong to a vulnerable population. The men and women hawking falafel and churros aren’t disturbing society or causing mass illness with their food. Yang musing about enforcement could very well equate to a cop showing up to arrest a vendor, as what happened to a woman selling churros in 2019. These are traumatic, potentially life-destroying encounters. Though the woman arrested was given a ticket and released shortly after, it’s possible that an undocumented immigrant selling food could get deported after an encounter with police.  

Why are we debating street vending at all? Since the 1980s, New York City has capped the number of licenses handed out to street vendors. There are roughly 5,100 licensed vendors today, who pay $200 for a license that is valid for two years. The waiting list to get one of these is quite long and a black market of resales predictably flourishes. The Street Vendor Project, a group under the Urban Justice Center which fights for the rights of vendors, has estimated that are 20,000 vendors in the city, including those that sell non-food items like flowers and T-shirts.

Recently, the City Council passed a bill that would more than double the number of permits issued over the next decade. The measure would create 4,000 new sidewalk and street food-selling permits by 2032, in addition to 3,000 currently issued by the city’s health department. In January, Yang himself celebrated the passage of this bill.

Ultimately, with so many vendors operating in the shadows, it would make sense to raise the cap on permits or end it altogether. If the cap ends and anyone can get a permit who wants one, the enforcement problem would be less pressing. At the minimum, police with handcuffs and guns shouldn’t be showing up to menace street vendors. The city can deputize civilian inspectors to do this.

But the issue isn’t as cut-and-dry as Yang’s critics want to make it. Some restaurant owners resent street vendors. Restaurants must pay taxes, rent, and staff to serve food that vendors can hawk for far less. Many restaurant owners in New York City come from many of the same immigrant communities that sell food on the street. The clash boils down to class. A Chinese or Middle Eastern restaurant owner may not feel solidarity with a Chinese or Middle Eastern street vendor if they believe the street business is undercutting them.

Still, is there hard evidence that street carts are hurting the restaurant industry? I have seen no data to undergird the argument. Far more pressing is the pandemic, which has devastated restaurants in the five boroughs. Another round of state and federal funds, in addition to what has been authorized already, should be pumped into restaurants over the next year to guarantee their long-term survival. A city with a crippled restaurant industry is not a city at all. And if Yang and Stringer are really concerned about their future, they should fight for commercial rent control or at least a City Council bill that would give small businesses the opportunity to fairly negotiate lease renewals with their landlords.

Stringer staged a press conference on Monday in reaction to Yang’s tweet. The city comptroller went to Corona, Queens, an immigrant-heavy neighborhood, and stood with two Latina politicians who have endorsed him, Catalina Cruz and Jessica Ramos. Ramos, a state senator, is carrying legislation that would abolish the cap on street vendor permits, the only intellectually defensible position if your primary concern is the harassment and arrest of immigrant vendors. At the press conference, Stringer’s opening remarks didn’t mention the Ramos bill at all. In fact, beyond denouncing Yang for taking an inhumane position, Stringer offered little in the way of what he would actually do to fix the problem of police handcuffing churro vendors. TV coverage of his press conference, captured by the pro-Yang consultant Lis Smith, later underscored this reality: “When pressed on his street vendor plans today, Stringer struggled to give details,” said an NBC reporter.

Stringer did, in the end, offer a solution, but it only came in the Q&A portion after he and his allies delivered their remarks. I asked Stringer what enforcement, at all, would look like in his mayoralty. “Once we lift the cap and we let people, we allow people to make a living, then we don’t have to have the kind of enforcement [that we’ve been seeing],” he said. “We’re going to make it so it’s not illegal.”

Pressed by another reporter, Stringer clarified that he supported the Ramos legislation that would abolish the cap. What was less clear was why he didn’t simply say this at the start of the press conference or in his social media feeds. It’s possible that Stringer worried about pushback from the restaurant industry, which would be fiercely opposed to ending a cap on permits.

There are lessons to be learned here. Yang should not simply tweet out what he’s heard from a select few people. He has floated a number of unworkable ideas and musings. It often feels he does not think through his tweets or still imagines himself a private citizen; he is a top candidate for mayor of New York City, and everything that flows from his Twitter account has profound implications. Why, in a pandemic, do we care about checking the permits of more street vendors? What problem is really being solved here? Yang predictably walked back his tweet on Monday. “I regret that I took on such a frankly complicated and nuanced issue on that medium. It wasn’t the right medium for it,” he said.

Shouldn’t this be a realization not first reached April 2021, in a mayoral race? Twitter has plenty of power, but not much nuance. Yang’s stance, on its own, is not one that would be out of sync with an electorate that is not as progressive or woke as activists would like it to be. A lot of New Yorkers would probably not bat an eyelash at a candidate who believes in a capped permit system and wants it enforced to some degree. Why have a limit on permits otherwise? What makes less sense is the critics of Yang who are furious that he’d suggest enforcement but don’t themselves support the Ramos legislation to end the cap. What should happen then? Outrage for the sake of outrage will not get us very far.