By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The guy who owns the falafel stand on your street corner can breathe a little easier, thanks to the City Council, which voted overwhelmingly last week to ease restrictions on street vendors.
The council passed a series of bills on Feb. 27 calling for, among other things, a $500 cap on the amount of fines vendors can be hit with when they are found to be in violation. Under the old law, the fines escalated to $1,000.
“Street vendors are an important part of our city’s backdrop,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. The bills passed by the council “will ease the financial burden placed on street vendors and will clarify city regulations on where vendors can operate,” she said.
Another bill prohibits street vendors from operating near hospital no-standing zones, taxi stands or within 20 feet of residential building exits.
Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights-Greenpoint) was one of the driving forces behind passage of the bills. The goal was to make life easier for “hardworking vendors,” particularly when it comes the vendors have to pay, Levin said.
“Currently, fines for even minor violations, such as being a few inches too far from the curb, escalate for unrelated offenses, reaching to a maximum of $1,000. Like all small business owners, vendors cannot afford to pay these exorbitant penalties. This legislation will reduce the maximum fine to $500, aligning the penalty with the violation and ensuring that vendors can afford to pay their fines,” he said.
“Our city needs to support and not criminalize our hardworking street vendors," Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem).
Street vendors hailed the council’s action. “Vendors are hardworking men and women who serve their local communities and make this city great. Lowering the maximum fine will be a major step in helping vendors,” said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, speaking on behalf of their 1,500 members.
But not everyone is happy with the idea of easing the financial burden on hot dog vendors and other sidewalk food merchants. Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) voted against the bills. Gentile charged that street vendors constitute unfair competition to brick and mortar store owners who he said pay more in taxes and fees to the city and are constantly harassed by health inspectors and other pesty bureaucrats.
Traditional brick and mortar shops and stores are taking a beating while losing their customers to the restaurants and businesses on wheels who do not play by the same rules, Gentile charged.
“The mobile food vendors of today should be held to the same standards as any brick and mortar restaurant. What sort of message are we sending to the mom and pop shops that are the lifeblood of our communities if we are lowering fines for the street vendors while bleeding mom and pop shops dry and chasing them out of the city?” Gentile said.
“Why aren’t we lowering fines for the brick and mortar business owner who is already paying a premium to rent a storefront on a main commercial strip while covering business and property taxes, water bills and private sanitation?” he said calling the council’s action “a glaring double standard.”