Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee likely to become the city’s 110th mayor – and second Black mayor – will inherit an economy that hemorrhaged jobs in the pandemic. And his base of supporters, the African American residents in the outer boroughs, are among the most vulnerable in an uncertain recovery.
Many people took to street peddling without a license as a financial lifeline; in recent weeks, though, city inspectors have begun to crackdown on such practices. While most aspects of a recovery are beyond the control of the next mayor, Adams would have one tool to promote the development of small business – the distribution of 4,000 new pushcart licenses.
Next year, the city will begin to issue new pushcart permits for the first time in generations. It provides the next mayor with an opportunity to not only improve oversight of the trade, but to compensate for old policies that undercut merchants in the Black community.
The new law could allow Adams to designate hundreds of pushcart vendors and ignite a new era of Black commercial activity. Street vendors generate more than $78.5 million in legal wages and an estimated $20 million in underground revenues, according to a City Council report. Currently, the city issues about 4,000 renewable pushcart licenses and maintains a waiting list of over 1,500 applicants – and stopped accepting new applications long ago.
Despite the cap on permits, the pushcart trade is conducted by both licensed and unlicensed vendors. Historically, the city assigned a license to the pushcart – rather than the vendor – which created an incentive for illegal subletting. Holders of licensed carts rented them out through ethnic networks for as much as $30,000 a year; the practice is so widespread that an estimated 80 percent of the pushcarts are believed to be involved in underground schemes.
Rather than regulate the subletting, however, the city focuses actions on peddlers selling on restricted streets. Inspectors respond to complaints from brick and mortar merchants ready to use police to enforce barriers to trade. Enforcement practices have ranged from tickets – an estimated 18,750 in 2015 with fines up to $1,000 – to confiscation of goods and police beatings of vendors.
Under the new law, the next mayor would begin distribution of 4,000 new pushcart licenses in July 2022. The city would distribute the first allotment of 400 “supervisory licenses,” as the vending permits are officially known, each year until 2032; of the 400 licenses issued annually, 300 will be in the outer boroughs and 100 in Manhattan. The new permits will be assigned to individuals – rather than to the pushcarts – to reduce subletting schemes.
Adams would have the authority to regulate the usage of older pushcart licenses and to create a fairer way to allocate new licenses. He would oversee the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, a new agency established to regulate pushcart licensing and practices.
Yet, efforts to encourage the trade in the Black community will likely instigate a pushcart war with immigrant stakeholders.
Under the new law, it is likely that immigrant applicants will be preferred. In January, Councilors Margaret Chin, Corey Johnson, and Carlos Menchaca contended in the Daily News that “those who are already vending will be first in line to get the new permits.”The stated reason for a seemingly rigged method of license distribution is to prevent “flooding the streets with hundreds of new carts.”
Fair minded people may find a system that favors vendors who broke the law repeatedly objectionable?
Historically, Black districts were subjected to dislocations under city and state policies. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the neighborhoods experienced the mean urban renewal programs of civil engineers like Robert Moses. The areas were targeted for demolition and replacement with parks and highways.
At the same time, the city began to restrict access to pushcart licenses and crack-down on street peddling in restricted areas. Black merchants were left reeling from the combination of forces. The void was filled by chain stores, new immigrant merchants and pushcart vendors with connections.
The Adams Administration might consider ways to partner with uplift organizations like the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance – touted by President Obama for giving young men the confidence to navigate employment challenges and stereotypes over crime. A critical factor to Black economic well-being is improving the dire economic status of young men.
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. He grew up in East Elmhurst, Queens, and worked as a street vendor when studying at Columbia University. This essay is reprinted from The Brooklyn Eagle.