Report Says Excessive Fines for Street Vendors are Hurting the City (And Are Bad for Vendors, Too)
A report released today argues that the city is excessively fining street vendors and in doing so is actually losing out on revenue it would get with a fine system that's more fair.
The report, called "Fining the Hand that Feeds You," from the University of Wisconsin, argues that high fines are less likely to be paid than lower, more reasonable fines -- and that if the city made them easier to pay, they would bring in more money. It was released this morning in partnership with the the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center and with support from City Council members who are pushing legislation on the topic and held a hearing today on street vendors.
Last year, the report notes, the city handed out more than 26,000 tickets to street vendors -- many costing vendors $1,000 for infractions that the authors say are minor and unrelated to health and safety, including vending too far from the curb or carrying their vending license in their pocket instead of wearing it around their neck.
Given their modest incomes, most street vendors simply aren't able to pay $1,000 fines, the report argues.
The City Council is considering several pieces of legislation, sponsored by Councilman Stephen Levin, including one that would lower the fines for street vendors by reducing the maximum fine amount. Another would amend the administrative code of the city to define unrelated violations of vending rules and regulations as separate offenses.
Alfonso Morales, co-author of the report and associate professor of urban regional planning at the University of Wisconsin, told the Voice this morning that the fine system in New York City right now just seems outdated and illogical.
"The regulatory framework is too complex," he says. "Giving a fine for a thousand dollars...feels sort of arbitrary."
He said that these kinds of inefficient enforcement policies have been in place in cities for a long time.
"We often choke out the most entrepreneurial aspects of our lives," he said. "The fines are so large that...they are no longer a disincentive to behaviors we don't like. [Instead], they just choke out new businesses...and people's aspirations."
Morales added that in general, street vendors are an important part of the economy, because they are often immigrant businesses that can frequently lead to larger storefront operations that are good for the city.
The city needs to support them, not burden them with large fines, he said. "They can be source of future entrepreneurial activity."
We were unable to attend the hearing today, but the city sent us remarks from Kathleen McGee, director of the mayor's office of special enforcement, which is responsible for coordinating enforcement efforts across city agencies. In response to proposals to cap the maximum penalties for vending violations -- and limit the circumstances in which graduated penalties are assessed for multiple violations -- the city is basically unsupportive. The statement emailed to the Voice says that across the city, compliance with the vending rules and laws is poor at best, and complaints continue to be very high. McGee said she does not support decreasing penalties for vending violations, but would support clarifying the statute to reflect the Environmental Control Board's current practice, which ensures that notices of violations issued on the same day carry the same penalty level.
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