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Street Vendor Oversight Shift to Department of Sanitation Gets Trash Talk From Council

Mayor Eric Adams pulls out of a de Blasio-era overhaul that sought to give immigrant street sellers a fighting chance to make a legit living without police involvement.

March 28, 2023 Yoav Gonen and Haidee Chu, The City
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY

City Council members hailed getting the NYPD out of the picture as a “historic” solution to the decades-old problem of balancing the needs of brick-and-mortar small businesses with those of the unpermitted street vendors who hustle their wares outside.

But just two years after city officials created an Office of Vendor Enforcement and placed it at the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), the agency’s commissioner, Vilda Vera Mayuga, suggested they had made a mistake.

“We are not the right agency equipped with the right knowledge to enforce street vending,” Mayuga said at a City Council budget hearing last week.

Her testimony came just days after the administration of Mayor Eric Adams jettisoned the solution signed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio, announcing that enforcement will move from DCWP to the Department of Sanitation on April 1.

The sudden shift is the latest in which Adams is tacking toward stricter enforcement, following an activist push to decriminalize violations — including subway fare evasion, petty shoplifting and, most recently, the sale of cannabis from unlicensed storefronts.

Council members in early 2021 thought they had struck the right balance on street vendors with a package of laws that raised the cap on the number of food-vending permits — by about 400 annually over 10 years — and also created the office dedicated to enforcement.

The Council law did not specify which city agency would host that office. De Blasio designated the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection — an agency whose mandate he had already expanded to enforce labor laws.

Councilmember Diana Ayala (D-The Bronx), who chaired the Council’s consumer committee, at the time praised the legislation, which also created an advisory board that included vendors and business owners.

“By establishing both a comprehensive enforcement unit as well as a street vendor advisory board, the city will fairly balance the mix of competing interests,” Ayala said during a vote on the legislation in January 2021.

Just over two years later, Commissioner Mayuga sat before the same City Council committee and pointed to obstacles that had hindered enforcement work.

She said her inspectors — 14 this year, and not law enforcement officers, meaning among other things that they do not have arrest powers — faced resistance at times when they asked vendors for identification, and had even received threats of violence that necessitated police backup.

When asked by Councilwoman Marjorie Velasquez (D-The Bronx), chair of the consumer committee, whether the Department of Sanitation would oversee the enforcement as well as her Consumer and Worker Protection unit had, Mayuga laughed.

“Well, thank you for thinking that we were providing a good service in street vendor enforcement,” she said.

“They are the experts in public space management,” Mayuga added, referring to sanitation. “Not DCWP.”

‘We’re Not Trash’

Street sellers and advocates in 2021 commended DCWP’s takeover as a fair alternative to police crackdowns. Now, they are pushing back against the enforcement shift to the Department of Sanitation.

“A lot of vendors said, ‘What do you mean that Sanitation will take over? We’re not trash,’” Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Street Vendor Project, told THE CITY. “What message is the administration sending us? Are they considering us trash that needs to be picked up?”

The move to the sanitation department followed Councilmember Sandra Ung’s recent call for strengthened enforcement in Downtown Flushing. A 2018 law by Ung’s Council predecessor Peter Koo banned vending in the Queens neighborhood, where many vendors continue to work, plus some areas of Manhattan.

Flushing vendors line an underpass near the Main Street LIRR station.
Flushing vendors line an underpass near the Main Street LIRR station, to the displeasure of some, March 8, 2023. | Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Koo, who was tapped as a senior advisor to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks last year, didn’t respond to a voice message seeking comment.

A week before the city hinted at the enforcement shift — which was first announced in a Daily News story posted on a Friday afternoon and that included a quote from the mayor rather than a formal statement from City Hall — Ung complained that DCWP had done little to ease congestion and dumping, or to deter unlicensed sellers.

“The lack of enforcement created a vacuum that only attracts more unlicensed vendors from across the city, and also creates a sense of lawlessness that attracts criminal elements,” she said.

But Attia questioned the charge that DCWP lacked the knowledge or resources needed for enforcement. When the department took charge in 2021, he said, several neighborhoods with many immigrant vendors began experiencing sweeps and inspections up to three times a week.

If anything, city numbers showed that enforcement grew more intense after the NYPD was sidelined, and the consumer and worker agency took the helm.

Assistant Commissioner Carlos Ortiz testified last week that DCWP had issued 3,300 tickets to vendors citywide in 2022 — up from the 1,812 reported by the NYPD in 2019, before the pandemic and before the department was relegated to a secondary role in vendor enforcement.

The NYPD also doled out criminal court tickets, according to Attia — for unlicensed vending but sometimes also for minor violations like not visibly displaying a license or for setting up shop too close to a crosswalk.

“How many inspections can a business get per week if three is not enough?” Attia said of the enforcement shift to the sanitation department. “Like, should we have inspections every day? This is really unexpected.”

Seeking a Fair Shake

City Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the Council’s sanitation committee, decried the lack of notice about the administration’s move to put a different agency in charge of enforcement.

She characterized the patchwork of vending rules and literature as confusing for street vendors — even apart from language barriers — and she questioned whether DCWP was given a fair chance to succeed.

“It’s like we haven’t put a good faith effort into adequately staffing a program that needs attention and that has clear recommendations for how to move forward and have greater clarity,” Nurse told THE CITY.

Former Councilmember Margaret Chin, one of the cosponsors of the 2021 reforms, echoed Nurse’s concerns that DCWP hadn’t been given enough resources by the administration. “The work is in the implementation, and a city agency has to have the support to do their job,” Chin told THE CITY.

She also questioned what the administration hoped to accomplish by simply shifting the responsibility from one agency to another.

“Moving it to the Department of Sanitation is not going to solve the problem, and it’s really disrespectful — because Sanitation in the past always got called when they wanted to get rid of stuff,” Chin said. “It’s just inhumane the way they’re doing things, and saying that DCWP can’t handle this? I don’t think so. Just make sure they have the staff.”

But City Councilmember Kalman Yeger, one of 13 “no” votes on the 2021 legislation, said he sees DCWP as a moneymaking machine that’s not interested in vendor enforcement because of the limited fines collected.

He and several other elected officials said it made sense for Adams to turn to sanitation commissioner Jessica Tisch — whom the mayor has entrusted on big issues that include his pet project of rat abatement — to tackle another longstanding city problem.

“I’m more than pleased that the mayor has assigned this task to the sanitation department, which is charged with keeping our streets clean,” Yeger said. “I don’t doubt for a second that Commissioner Tisch is going to be all over this the right way.”

Attia, who is also a member of the Council-created Street Vendor Advisory Board, said he’s disappointed in the way that vendor reform efforts so far have focused on enforcement — while progress on the board’s 16 recommendations to help vendors make a legal living, including expansion of work opportunities and the repeal of criminal liability, has mostly languished.

Getting a license is out of reach for most. All 853 merchandise licenses the city issues to individuals who are not military veterans have already been distributed, with its waitlist also closed. Mobile food vending permits are also capped at 5,100.

So far, Attia added, even the city’s promise to establish 445 new licenses, with applications that were supposed to become available in July 2022, have yet to materialize.

“I hope that the system will be fair, that we reach a point where we don’t care about enforcement anymore,” Attia recalled from a conversation with a vendor recently. “If they bring a thousand agents on the streets, we don’t care because we can comply, we are abiding by the system.”

At last week’s hearing, Nurse asked Ortiz about implementation of the advisory board’s 16 recommendations. He noted most of those changes can only be done through legislation — that is, by City Council itself.

Council spokesperson Breeana Mulligan said, “The Council continues to consider its next steps on potential legislation regarding the report’s recommendations.”

‘Only Today and No Tomorrow’

Few details have been released about how enforcement will work at the Department of Sanitation other than the size of the enforcement unit, which will include about 40 officers and supervisors, according to an agency spokesperson.

Tisch and Velasquez last week wrote a joint op-ed in the New York Post emphasizing enforcement that would start with warnings “whenever possible.”

Summonses and confiscation of property, which would later be returned unless it’s food that can’t be salvaged for donation, would be the next steps if vendors don’t comply, the spokesperson said.

The op-ed references the lack of an “appropriate staffing model” in prior enforcement efforts.

“That will change April 1 when dozens of new sanitation police officers begin to hit the streets focused on illegal street vending — among the most visible challenges to cleanliness across the city,” the op-ed says, even as it notes that sanitation police, who are licensed to carry guns and have the authority to arrest people, haven’t made any arrests to the best of their memory.

But Helen He, a 54-year-old merchandise vendor in Flushing, told THE CITY in Mandarin that she has already noticed signs of more severe and strict crackdowns since the announcement of the enforcement shift — and is worried that it signals an escalation to come under the sanitation department.

Just days after City Hall moved to shift enforcement to sanitation, the NYPD last Wednesday arrested five vendors in Flushing in a joint sweep with the sanitation, health, and fire departments — issuing tickets to many others, according to the Chinese-language news site World Journal.

All of He’s merchandise was confiscated in the sweep after only very limited back-and-forth with the enforcement agencies, she told THE CITY.

“Now that DCWP is no longer out here, these are the problems that have been happening to us,” He said in Mandarin, adding that she has never experienced a sweep of this scale in the two years she’s been vending.

“None of us are going on with our everyday lives in a happy or peaceful way. The feeling is that there’s only today and no tomorrow.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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