Over the weekend, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang did what he does best. He tweeted. In this case, he tweeted that he hears “over and over again” that the city is “not enforcing rules against unlicensed street vendors.” He then advocated for expanding such licenses while using government powers to protect license-holders against unlicensed competition.
New York City issues licenses to permit people to sell stuff on the streets. There are a finite number of such licenses: 853 “general merchandise” licenses to sell stuff like CDs and books and 2,800 full-year food vendor licenses (plus another 100 for veteran-owned stands and 1,000 for seasonal and fruit and vegetable stand licenses).
Arbitrarily capping these licenses and then banning everyone else from competing with them—or brick-and-mortar stores that offer substantially similar services—seems like exactly the type of bureaucracy Yang would decry, given how often he tweets about his support for small businesses and distaste for bureaucratic red tape, such as a tweet from January that reads in its entirety “I love small business owners. They just want to make their business work.”
But it is less odd after diving into the politics of New York City street vendor licenses and who gets to decide how public spaces are used. At the core of the issue is the way Yang’s passive voice tweet began: “You know what I hear over and over again…” Left unsaid is who has been doing the talking.
During subsequent damage control, Yang walked his position back, saying he broadly supports vendors and heard from “five different small businesses” about troublesome vendors driving customers away. Why he decided to make a campaign issue out of a few anecdotal cases is yet another oddity to ponder.
But, for those familiar with the long-standing politics of street vendor licenses, Yang’s remarks spoke to a deeper divide between street vendors and established business owners, the umbrella organizations that lobby in their interest, and even the largest corporations in the world like Apple, which in 2016 hired the Roffe Group lobbying firm to “Assist Apple with NYC permitting of street vendors near Apple store,” among other things, according to a document viewed by Motherboard.
That Yang can position himself as a champion of entrepreneurs, an eliminator of red tape, and supporter of the immigrant community while simultaneously advocating for an expansion of the street vendor permitting system—and crackdown of those who run afoul of it—which would disproportionately target the smallest of businesses and the most vulnerable immigrants through the exact type of Kafkaesque red tape system he claims to despise speaks to bigger issues than Andrew Yang’s viability as a mayoral candidate. It is a representative question in the larger context of who the American Dream is for and how much crony capitalism can be shrouded in the language of entrepreneurialism.
Part of the problem is the term “small business” itself, which has many different definitions and characterizations in American lore. Every politician, from proto-fascist to quasi-Marxist, invariably claims to be the small business advocate no matter how false that is. They can all get away with it because the actual term “small business” is practically meaningless. Technically, a firm with up to 1,499 employees can qualify as a “small business” depending on the industry under the Small Business Administration, a federal agency. But, more generally, 500 employees is the cutoff used, except in New York, where “Section 131 of the Economic Development Law defines a small business as one that has fewer than 100 employees and is independently owned and operated,” according to a state comptroller report, even though when most people imagine a “small business” they probably do not think of someone with too many employees to fit in two city buses. An owner of a chain of coffee shops with four locations around the city, someone with a stake in two CrossFit gyms, an owner of a plumbing supply warehouse, a handyman, and a street vendor all have legitimate claims to the “small business” label despite running drastically different operations.
Businesses of such varying size and scope often have conflicting goals. Rarely do all “small businesses” want the same thing, because what is good for some small businesses may not be good for others. The street vendor licensing issue is a perfect example.
Of course, arbitrary caps on goods and services for which demand exceeds supply inevitably results in black and gray markets—that is, people sell shit illegally because the government has made it impossible for them to comply with the law. In this case, a large percentage of New York street vendors do not have a license, because the license system with an arbitrary cap makes little economic sense. By not having a license, these vendors are subject to the whims of more powerful forces like vendors with licenses who are therefore legitimized in the eyes of the state, business groups, and the NYPD.
The issue of unlicensed street vendors came to a head in 2019 when a churro vendor was arrested in a Brooklyn subway station for the crime of selling a dessert without a license. In January, the City Council passed a law to gradually increase the number of food vendor licenses by 400 a year for the next decade. But many other small businesses, including restaurants, opposed that law because they don’t want the competition.
And those businesses have increasing influence over the way public space is used. Through a program called business improvement districts (BIDs), much of the city’s important public spaces have become increasingly privatized. By levying a tax on commercial properties with the designated area, BIDs take the lead on all kinds of public-facing initiatives such as planting trees, employing people to clean sidewalks, and other beautification initiatives. They also run workshops and provide other avenues to help business owners navigate complex city and state regulations, exactly the type of help street vendors don’t get due to their legal illegitimacy. According to the NYC BID Association, there are currently 76 BIDs covering more than 85,000 businesses. BIDs have been credited with revitalizing New York by providing the kind of public services the city has long neglected, but they also serve as a privatized force, often with its own security guards, to harass and remove unlicensed vendors.
Yang’s more progressive opponents in the mayoral race were quick to pounce on his vendor position for its unmistakable whiff of Law And Order rhetoric at a time when the city’s future feels up for grabs, when New Yorkers want a fair chance to get their lives back to normal, or perhaps even better than where we left off. Of all the questions New Yorkers have about our city’s future, “do you have a permit for that churro?” ought not to be one of them.