NEW YORK — With a guy selling pretzels and hot dogs on every other block, Manhattan must seem to tourists like a Shangri-La for street food vendors — a place where any entrepreneur willing to stand in bad weather for long hours can hustle up a living. In reality, though, New York's food cart business is no picnic.
For decades, the city's regulatory scheme has made it next to impossible to obtain a new permit to operate a food cart or truck. That's locked thousands of vendors into a black-market system where they are forced to pay huge amounts to "rent" one of the city's roughly 4,200 existing permits from do-nothing middlemen. Or else, they can risk hefty fines by operating illegally.
Unable to get a permit of his own, Mohammed Shaheedul Huq, who operates a cart in downtown Brooklyn, paid $18,000 upfront to lease one from a man who pays the city just $200 every two years for the license.
"I have no choice," said Huq, who was a stockbroker in his native Bangladesh but now rooms in one of Brooklyn's poorest neighborhoods. "He's supposed to not sell it to me. I'm supposed to not buy from him. All departments know how it works, but nobody takes any action."
That could be changing. The New York City Council is looking at adopting legislation that would create 600 new food vendor permits each year for a seven-year period, roughly doubling the number of carts and trucks allowed on the street.
Street vendors and their advocates hail the legislation, which has the support of the City Council's speaker, as a much-needed change to outdated rules they say have strangled entrepreneurship.
But others, like representatives of the city's business improvement districts, say there are already too many carts in prime locations as it is now. They want any increase in the number of permits to only follow after systematic enforcement of existing rules.
"If you lift the cap on the number of vendors without doing anything else, it's not like 600 vendors are going to spread throughout the five boroughs. They're just going to go where the money is," said Ellen Baer, co-chair of the NYC BID Association, which represents the city's 72 business improvement districts.
New York City capped the number of food vending permits at around 4,200 in the early 1980s after similar complaints from brick-and-mortar businesses about clogged sidewalks. Few people lucky enough to have gotten permits in the 1980s have willingly given them up. Instead, they rent them to people like Huq, even though such arrangements are a violation of city rules.
Only a minuscule number of permits become available in any given year, roughly 50, according to the city. A waiting list that was opened in 2007 with 2,500 spots still has about 1,700 people on it.
Thousands more vendors set up shop without any permit, though they run a risk of steep fines.
Delmy Zelaya, who runs a cart on a Queens street, said she might make $60 a day selling obleas, a Colombian snack that has a layer of caramel between two wafers. In the four years she's been doing it though, she's already been fined $3,000.
The system of people holding onto their permits and renting them out isn't fair, Zelaya said, especially for someone like her who's just trying to make extra income to help cover bills.
"I want to live and breathe," she said. "I don't want anybody to stop me."
The legislation introduced last month would hike the fee for a two-year permit to $1,000 and create a dedicated enforcement unit.
Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, which advocates for vendors, said he favored removing the caps on permits entirely. But he called the bill "a serious and thoughtful and reasonable effort to get at the heart of the problem, which is the lack of opportunity for people."