“If it’s not the police, it’s the health department. If it’s not the health department, it’s the police,” said Laura Saurez, 25, on a recent Sunday night. Speaking in Spanish through a translator as she worked at her cart, Suarez added, “No matter what, if they come, they fine you.”
Suarez is one of dozens of street vendors who line Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and Corona. It’s a community of workers who hit the street rain or shine — or even hurricane or fluke snow storm — to sell food at all hours of the day and night.
But Suarez, like many vendors, feels weighed down not by the work or the long hours, but by “multas” — the fines levied against vendors for infractions of the city’s vending code. A single ticket can cost up to $1,000, and street vendor advocates as well as vendors themselves say it’s not uncommon for one vendor to accrue several thousand dollars worth of tickets in a very short time.
Along Roosevelt Avenue, many vendors also said ticketing has been on the rise, though others simply said ticketing frequency always fluctuates, but that they remain a constant concern.
At a time when many are having trouble making ends meet, the city’s fine policy “does not promote the creation of small businesses,” said Sean Basinski, the director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group for vendors. He believes the city views street vending as a scourge instead of a viable small business activity.
“In other cities, vending is regulated by the small business department,” Basinski said. “If you give it to the police department, they’re going to look at it as criminal.”
The police in New York are in charge of upholding much of the vending regulatory code. They levy fines not for sanitary infractions having to do with food preparation — the purview of the health department — but for a slew of other infractions.
For example, a street vendor is required to leave at least 12 feet of pedestrian space between the curb and their cart, and must stay at least 20 feet away from a building entranceway and 10 feet away from a subway entrance at all times.
It’s the subway rule that has gotten Maria Luna, 46, in trouble. The Corona vendor sells tamales and hot drinks from a corner near a No. 7 subway entrance, and has the tickets to prove it. In just two months, she has accumulated 25 tickets, many of them for the same infraction: proximity to the subway entrance
“If I go anywhere else, I’m not going to make enough money to pay the fines,” Luna said in Spanish, explaining the Catch 22 that has her returning to the same lucrative post near the entrance, despite the tickets.
But the tamale vendor said she had to pay thousands of dollars in fines last year and will mostly likely have a hefty bill when she eventually appears before a judge in the coming months to find out how much the city will charge for her accumulated tickets.
Repeat offending is not what the Street Vendor Project takes issues with in the law, Basinski said. Rather, it’s that each time a vendor gets a ticket for any infraction — whether it’s subway distance, having a cooler next to your cart or not having your license displayed prominently — the fine amount increases, from $35 to $50 and eventually to $1,000. An amendment to city regulations that the Street Vendor Project is advocating would require that fines only increase on this schedule for repeat offenses. A hearing for the legislation will be held in the next few months, Basinski said.
“We’re only working,” Suarez, who has had to pay thousands in the past, said. “The police should have better stuff to do.”