Shamim Ahmad has been operating a halal cart at the corner of Houston Street and Broadway in SoHo for five years, and has been ticketed by police and health officials as many as several times a week. Nearly all of those citations were eventually dismissed — he says he has only ever paid one $50 fine. The real loss is the day’s wages he must forfeit by having to go to the courthouse. “I get a lot of tickets for nothing,” he said.
But at the other end of the spectrum are residents and community members who are bothered by the noise, smells and flashing lights that accompany street vendors. Several such locals attended a meeting of the First Precinct’s Community Council on March 31 to discuss and complain about the vendors’ presence.
“They’re proliferating,” one person said, requesting that there be more diligent monitoring of the vendors in her area. “Everyone keeps telling us it’s someone else’s issue,” said another. In response, a police officer acknowledged that the subject had come up at Community Board 1 meetings and said there is a vendor unit of officers who are dedicated to the issue.
At the community council meeting, residents voiced frustration with regulations governing vendors. One community member called the rules “lax” and suggested that they allow just about anyone to set up a table or a cart and begin legally selling kebabs or jewelry, which is not the case. Vendors go through an application process to obtain a license from the Department of Consumer Affairs and a training process if they are approved.
In an effort to reduce confusion about the rules, the SoHo Broadway Initiative, the neighborhood’s business improvement group, published a guidebook in January on sidewalk vending. Among other things, the guide stipulates that food carts must be set up at least 10 feet from a crosswalk or subway entrance, and at least 20 feet from the entrance to any building or store. But it does not specify from which edge of a cart or table to measure -- the back edge closer to the curb or the front edge closer to the main sidewalk traffic. This discrepancy is notable, since measuring from the back of the cart or table would give vendors more margin for error.
Mark Dicus, the executive director of SoHo Broadway, who attended the March meeting, later said he hopes the guidebook will serve as a resource whenever the legality of a vendor’s operation is in question or if there are particular trouble spots in his area. “Even if we check it in our map we go out and measure it, too, and that’s what we would want someone from the city to do,” Dicus said. “We try to work with the vendor first. … The fact of the matter is, Broadway is where vendors want to be.”
Dicus emphasized that he is eager to collaborate with vendors, and expressed his appreciation for those who are willing to work with him. The stretch of Broadway between Houston and Broome Streets in particular is lined with popular shopping opportunities and tends to be consistently crowded with vendors selling all types of wares.
Vendors themselves, though, feel they are too often typecast as lawbreakers and unfairly and too frequently ticketed despite their efforts to comply with regulations.
“For those of us who are following the rules and regulations ... could we just have a respite against all the tickets?” asked a vendor at the meeting.
Basma Eid, an organizer with the Street Vendor Project, had heard similar complaints from vendors in the organization, and was at the Community Council meeting in March to help advocate for their rights. “Currently the Street Vendor Project is campaigning for some pretty massive reforms when it comes to vending legislation,” Eid said. “A lot of the rules that exist for vendors haven’t been modified ... in 30 years, and we think a lot of them are pretty antiquated.”
Ahmad, the halal cart operator, said he that he has had fewer encounters with police recently. Prior to that, though, he said he has been ticketed as many as six times in a week for allegedly being too close to the crosswalk and for not displaying his license prominently enough. “Sometimes when we put on the apron the license goes inside the apron,” he said, explaining why it might not be visible. “Just by accident.”
He has also been cited for a broken water dispenser, a ticket he said was issued while he was attempting to fix the problem. He has also received citations for standing on a flattened cardboard box in his cart because the metal floor gets cold in the winter and not keeping his food at the correct temperatures.
The most common offense for which he is cited, though, is being too close to a crosswalk. But Ahmad said he has “never in [his] life” seen police measure the distance other than visually.
Multiple follow-up requests for comment to the precinct and to department spokespersons were not returned. But officers at March’s community council meeting said their squads carry around measuring tapes for that purpose, and suggested that they do measure as a matter of course.
Eid, whose organization has around 2,000 vendor members, said updates and clarifications to the regulations are badly needed.
“I think there’s a fear that vendors will line the streets, but it’s really impossible because of the 20-foot rule,” Eid said. “It might sound like we’re arguing over a matter of a couple feet, but a couple feet is a day’s work for a low-income worker who is relying on that wage.”