Street Vendor Project
Stories of Impact
From the Statue of Liberty to the yellow taxi cab, The Big Apple is rife with symbols that make our city instantly recognizable. One image that might not immediately come to mind – but is equally as iconic – is the food trucks that dot the busiest streets of New York, feeding everyone from Midtown workers to gastronomically curious tourists. But despite their significant contributions to our city’s culinary landscape, vendors are often not seen as real business owners.
This labor oversight is exactly the issue that the Street Vendor Project (SVP) is trying to address. Founded in 2001 under the Urban Justice Center, SVP is a voice for street vendors of all kinds across New York City that ensures these workers are involved in the policies and rules that govern their businesses. “[Street Vendor Project] envisions a city where street vendors can thrive and be recognized for the great service and work they do in their communities,” Mohamed Attia, Street Vendor Project’s Managing Director, said. “We want to change the system and we want to change the rules and the laws that govern street vendors.”
Over the past two decades, the Street Vendor Project has gained a critical mass of almost 3,000 members determined to bring about community-driven legislative change. “The members come to our meetings, they lead the conversations with the electoral officials, and they make a lot of decisions in terms of what the organization should prioritize in certain projects and campaigns,” Attia said.
SVP has recently made historic wins to not only legitimize street vendors’ labor, but to ensure that they are being compensated fairly for it. Like many service industry businesses, street vendors took a major hit during the pandemic. But unlike some other small businesses, “vendors didn’t receive a dime from the government throughout the pandemic,” Attia explained. In response, SVP co-founded the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, along with other grassroots organizations, advocating for relief for workers who were excluded from pandemic relief due to their immigration status or the informal nature of their work, resulting in the NY state government dedicating $2.1 billion in a first-of-its-kind cash relief fund for these excluded workers in April 2021.
Street Vendor Project envisions a city where street vendors can thrive and be recognized for the great service and work they do in their communities.Mohamed Attia, Managing Director
But the struggles that street vendors face don’t only appear in times of emergency. According to Attia, laws surrounding business operations in New York City are often outdated, arbitrary, and simply “make no sense.” To combat these structural challenges, SVP led a 7-year campaign that resulted in the City Council passing legislation in 2021 to increase the cap on food vending permits distributed across the city – a number that hasn’t changed since 1983. Thanks to this worker-led organizing, the Health Department is now mandated to issue 4,450 new permits to vendors over the next ten years.
This crucial and system-shifting work has been made possible by the support of Brooklyn Org. With BKO’s funding, Street Vendor Project has been able to hire staff that meet street vendors where they’re at, in the languages that they speak. “The street vendors’ communities are as diverse as New York City. With Brooklyn Org’s support, we have staff that speak the five main languages that are spoken within the vendor community.” From Spanish and Mandarin, to Arabic and Bangla, all the way to Wolof French, SVP staff has been able to draw in members across Brooklyn to build a movement with workers at the front.
$2.1B of NYS funding was put towards a first-of-its-kind cash relief fund for excluded workers thanks to SVP's organizing
Having staff members who can speak with vendors in their native languages has greatly impacted SVP’s ability to guide their members through the ins and outs of business compliance, which are notoriously difficult to follow. “The vending laws are very complicated,” Attia explained. “Imagine what it [takes] for a vendor who’s probably not very comfortable with English, who probably needs a lot of support and a lot of visuals, to understand how to be in compliance with these rules.”
With 22 years of organizing under their belts, SVP is committed to continuing its momentum with an exciting, multi-pronged Street Vendor Reform Campaign. Launched in March 2023, the campaign has four main goals: (1) to ensure that all vendors have access to vending licenses and permits, (2) a repeal of the criminal liability attached to street vending that will make it illegal for NYPD to arrest vendors for minor violations or to send them to criminal courts, (3) for the Small Business Services (SBS) Department to create services for street vendors that provide them with resources, and (4) to revisit rules that don’t make sense in terms of administrative codes and citing codes.
The road ahead may be daunting, but Aitta knows that Street Vendor Project’s energized and dedicated members are up for the challenge: “When we hear impossible goals, we say yes, that’s exactly what we want to do. We want to make the impossible possible.”