The Bronx Is the New Hot Spot for Street Vendor Tickets

The Bronx Is the New Hot Spot for Street Vendor Tickets

A food vendor works on Fordham Road in The Bronx, April 5, 2024. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

By Haidee Chu

For days, street vendor Miguel Varela slept in a storage unit where he keeps his merchandise because he can no longer afford a roof over his head after racking up ticket after ticket in Parkchester in The Bronx. On Fordham Road about three miles away, longtime seller Keba Touré said he’s noticed officers from the Department of Sanitation patrolling the streets more often now than in the years prior — almost daily.

In the year since the sanitation department took over street vendor enforcement from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection in April 2023, The Bronx has experienced an uptick in vending-related civil summonses like no other borough, an analysis of data from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings by THE CITY found.

Vendors in The Bronx received 29% more tickets from sanitation than they had from DCWP in the year prior — even as the number issued citywide decreased by 22%, to 1,587 from 2,042.

No other borough saw an increase: Vendors were slapped with fewer tickets in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens while Staten Island’s number was level.

“That very much resonates with what we’ve been hearing,” Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the non-profit Street Vendor Project, said when presented with the new findings.

In Community District 8  — covering the northwest corner of The Bronx, where the number of tickets issued grew at a faster rate than any other district in the city — the sanitation department doled out 27 tickets since taking over enforcement last April. In the year before that, DCWP had handed out just two tickets.

“I don’t know what changed. I don’t know what made them feel like we’re doing something wrong,” a Kingsbridge vendor, who declined to share their name, told THE CITY when a reporter visited the area, located in Community District 8, last week.

The vendor, an immigrant from Gambia, said they’re at their stand every day, and have witnessed sanitation officials confiscate products on multiple occasions from a fruit vendor in the neighborhood, while asking about their own merchandise every few days.

“They come to my table. Everything correct. They take the picture. And then the next two, three days, they come again,” the vendor said. “The police keep coming to your place, people might think you’re doing something wrong.”

At a neighborhood level, the sharpest increases came in the central Bronx. Vendors in Parkchester, in Community District 9, were hit with 21 tickets, up from one. Those in Allerton, in Community District 11, went from zero tickets under DCWP to 18 under sanitation.

But spikes in these new enforcement hot spots, Kaufman-Gutierrez argues, understate the magnitude of enforcement’s impact, since even vendors who haven’t been slapped with tickets become intimidated, losing days of work, seeking new places to vend or giving up on their trade altogether.

“Sometimes DSNY will go and they just give one ticket, but that means every other vendor in the neighborhood has basically seen someone else getting a ticket and picked up and left,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “There’s usually one person who kind of pays the price for the rest of the people working.”

‘I Couldn’t Work’

Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation, said the department has maintained a “warnings-first approach” to enforcement while focusing “strongly on enforcing the rules on cleanliness and quality of life” since Mayor Eric Adams charged it with taking the lead role on street vendor enforcement last April.

“Our enforcement is focused on situations where vending has created dirty conditions, safety issues, where items are left out at night, and setups that block curbs, subway entrances, bus stops, sidewalks or store entrances, and is largely driven by communities themselves through 311, BID, Council Member, and community board complaints,” Goodman told THE CITY, noting that more than 18,000 vending-related calls to 311 were directed to the department since it took over, compared to 739 to DCWP and the health department, which issues food vendor licenses, in the year prior.

Street vendors sell fresh produce on Fordham Road in The Bronx.
Street vendors sell fresh produce on Fordham Road in The Bronx, April 5, 2024. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

The department’s crackdown throughout The Bronx is a welcome change to some local business associations in the borough. Albert Dalipi, a deputy director at the Fordham Road Business Improvement District, for example, told the Daily News that the BID was happy “for the enforcement to finally be happening” after a sanitation sweep last year on the busy commercial strip, where he said unlicensed vendors have crowded sidewalks, created trash and dumping problems, and detracted from brick-and-mortar businesses.

But Varela, a 52-year-old vendor who has set up shop to sell hats and sunglasses at Hugh Grant Circle in Parkchester for the past seven years, said the sanitation officers who now patrol his area in The Bronx have often focused on ticketing street sellers for being unlicensed, rather than for other violations that can create inconvenience for businesses.

“Last year, they said they would not focus on permits and licenses, that they would be focusing on siting rules and regulations,” Varela told THE CITY in Spanish through an interpreter from the Street Vendor Project, referring to the sanitation department.

Shortly after the department began vendor enforcement last year, Commissioner Jessica Tisch testified that it would be taking a “compliance-first approach” to ticketing “rather than a license-check-first approach.”

“That’s what the vendors want. We want the agents at DSNY to stop enforcing on permitting and licensing and focus more on rules and regulations,” he continued, adding that he has had no luck in entering the waitlist for a DCWP merchandise vendor license, since the application for it only opens in small and rare windows, and more than 11,920 applicants are already stuck in what’s been a mostly idle queue.

Indeed, vendors in a few areas in The Bronx are more likely to be cited specifically for unlicensed vending, according to THE CITY’s analysis of the new ticketing data. Whereas 45% of all vending tickets citywide are for unpermitted sales, those violations accounted for 81% of vending-related summonses in Parkchester, 87% of those on Fordham Road, and 89% of those in the Kingsbridge area.

Varela, for one, has racked up four tickets for unlicensed vending for $250 apiece since December, when sweeps there became more frequent according to summonses records. The former construction worker said he turned to street vending after injuring himself on the job. But the surge in enforcement, he said, has made his new occupation increasingly difficult and unrewarding.

He’s doing much less vending now, he said, because of the ticketing blitz, turning to whatever odd construction or cleaning jobs he can land to bring in income.

“The most difficult thing about getting employment is being an immigrant and not having the proper documentation,” said Varela, who immigrated to the U.S. from the state of Puebla in Mexico 23 years ago. “That really is something that makes it difficult to find other opportunities.”

Varela can no longer keep up with the tickets he owes to the city, he said — or with his bills. After moving from a larger apartment into a studio, and then from that studio into a room, he’s now spending some nights sleeping in the storage unit where he keeps his merchandise, while couch-surfing on other days.

“I tried to work this weekend, on Saturday, but DSNY did not stop — they were just there, and I couldn’t work,” Varela told THE CITY on Monday. “I’m trying to pick any work up, but the bills keep piling up. It’s not easy to live without a consistent income, and I just wish I could go back to work as a vendor.”

A vendor sells street wears near the train stop in Kingsbridge.
A vendor sells street wear near the train stop in Kingsbridge, April 5, 2024. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

Touré, the 63-year-old vendor on Fordham Road, also said business has been especially difficult under sanitation’s enforcement regime, which he said has included near-daily patrols and merchandise confiscations that forces unlicensed vendors like himself to not only pay fines but also rent a van or truck to reclaim their products.

“Every time I go out there, I go with fear,” said Touré, who spoke to THE CITY in Wolof through an interpreter from the Street Vendor Project.

As vending-related summonses on Fordham Road increased by 96% under the sanitation department, Goodman said the department has posted more than 100 warning signs in the area for unlicensed vendors to vacate ahead of ticketing, adding that the thoroughfare is “one of the parts of the City where unregulated vending has caused issues for businesses and residents.”

The goal of confiscating vendor materials when necessary, he added, is “to get abandoned, unsafe, or obstructive items OFF our sidewalks, keeping our neighborhoods clean and accessible to all.”

But Touré, who worked as a tailor in Senegal before immigrating to the U.S. in 2000, said he’s always kept his area clean and tidy.

He had successfully gotten onto the general merchandise license waitlist back in 2015, he said, only to find out months later that his name had vanished from the coveted queue. He’s had no luck re-entering the list again since.

He now spends about four days a week working at a grocery store to subsidize lost income, he said, so he can send money home to Senegal to support his mother and sisters.

“I want to feed them. They need help so I needed to come here and get a better life,” Touré said. “The dream I’ve always had is to have enough money to support my family. But this dream I have — it’s still not accomplished.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Custodio.

This article was published by THE CITY on April 12, 2024.

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