Academic journal article Cityscape

Fining the Hand That Feeds You: Situational and Violation-Specific Factors Influencing New York City Street Vendor Default in Payment

Academic journal article Cityscape

Fining the Hand That Feeds You: Situational and Violation-Specific Factors Influencing New York City Street Vendor Default in Payment

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)


Street vending is a phenomenon that has become globally prevalent (Bromley, 2000). In the United States, street merchants have long been an essential part of the economic structure of cities themselves. Vending has been used to enhance food security, alleviate unemployment, and even integrate new immigrants into social and economic life. At the same time, local municipalities have paralleled these trends by regulating vending to maintain order and traffic flow and to reduce potential competition with brick-and-mortar businesses.

Street vending in New York City (NYC), in particular, has a long history and continues to remain synonymous with the city itself. Historical records from as far back as the 17th century highlight just how intertwined street vending was with daily city life (Bluestone, 1991). Throughout the 19th century, street vending was a way for many immigrant residents to earn a living; the goods they purveyed provided lower-income residents with a source from which to purchase household necessities (Taylor et al., 2000). Street merchants were then widespread in NYC from the late 1800s until the mid-1930s, when city improvements for the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair began to restrict their street presence.

The current framework of street vending in NYC continues to be restrictive: since the early 1980s, the city has limited the number of vending permits issued to 3,100 2-year permits, 1,000 seasonal permits, and 1,000 green (produce) cart permits (City of New York, 2015). These numbers have remained unchanged for more than 30 years, with the exception of green cart permits, which were added in 2008 (Leggat et al., 2012). This cap on vending permits has resulted in a "black market" for leased permits in NYC. Leasing a permit from another holder, which is illegal, can cost a potential vendor upwards of $20,000, while those who are selected to apply for a new permit legally via a random lottery system (maintained by the city) pay only $200 (Marritz, 2015). Once issued a permit, license holders may renew their permit indefinitely, without having to prove that they continue to operate. Coupled with the difficulty in obtaining a proper vending permit is the complexity and irregularity of street-vending rules and regulations. No single city agency currently is responsible for overseeing street-vending activities. Sluszka and Basinski (2006) noted that such a "multiagency approach" has resulted in a set of vending regulations that are complex, unclear, and, in some cases, contradictory for both vendors and enforcement officers.

Street vending perhaps can be considered one of the most visible examples of irregularly enforced activity in the United States today. While some violations are "crystal clear," others are often viewed as murky, ambiguous, and "muddy." Every rule of law may be characterized as either crystal clear or not. A rule that one "may not vend within 8 feet of a bus stop" is crystal clear. Disagreements over its application are likely to be rare and are quickly resolved. By contrast, a rule that a street vendor "must keep adequate records of sales" is ambiguous and can be interpreted differently from vendor to vendor. Such a rule encourages disagreement over what constitutes "adequate records," and thus complicates dispute resolution. Such muddy violations also empower law enforcement officials with a substantial amount of discretion (Kettles, 2014).

Given these challenges, it is perhaps not surprising that many issued vending tickets go unpaid. For 2009, the NYC Independent Budget Office reported that street-vending fine enforcement alone cost the city $7.4 million (Turetsky, Vega, and O'Brien, 2010). Coupled with the cost of enforcement, only a small percentage of fines written in 2009 were actually paid. Out of an estimated $15.8 million in total civil vending penalties for 2009, approximately $14.9 million in written fines went uncollected. …

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