CITY HALL — The City Council is mulling a plan to lower fines against street vendors across the city, while strengthening regulations that would bar them from no parking zones, cab stations, and other areas.
The City Council heard from street vendors and their supporters at a hearing Tuesday over a proposal to reduce the fines for violations, which can soar as high as $1,000, to a maximum fine of $250.
The relief for vendors could come alongside new restrictions on where vendors can set up shop, including prohibiting vending against or within taxi stands, in front of buildings' service entrances and exits, and on the sidewalks alongside ‘No Standing’ zones and adjacent to hospitals, officials said.
Vendors lined up at the hearing for the City Council Tuesday to rail against the fines, which they say are so cost-prohibitive, they could crush a fledgling business for minor crimes like not displaying their licenses or parking their carts too close to the curb.
"A $1,000 fine to a family that’s selling peanuts is a heck of a blow,” said Murray Hill’s Larry Wagner, 64, a street vendor who sells T-shirts, hoodies and other items in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park, ahead of a long-awaited hearing on the issue at City Hall.
Mohameds Ali, 44, a vendor for 14 years and a member of the vendor advocacy group the Street Vendor Project, said he used to be a teacher in his native Egypt, but now supports his wife and three children as well as family back home by selling hot dogs at the corner of West 41st Street and Seventh Avenue.
Ali said he's been docked thousands of dollars in fines by the city, spending $3,000 one year in order to have his license renewed.
"It was extremely difficult for me to pay these fines," he said, adding that his wife cried when she realized she had to cancel a trip home to cover the costs. "I can’t be safe and secure."
Violation fines for vendors currently begin at about $50 for a first offense, but can escalate to up to $1,000 as vendors continue to rack up their fourth and fifth fines over the course of two years.
The Council is currently considering legislation that would reduce the maximum fine from $1,000 to $250, as well as change the escalation structure, so that fines do not increase unless vendors break the same rules twice.
"That’s the outrage here. The punishment does not fit the crime," said Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin, who sponsored the legislation, and said that fines of $1,000 are "prohibitive" and "punitive" for vendors making only $14,000 or $15,000 a year.
He said that if the city imposed a similar fine structure for traffic violations, "there would be riots in the street."
Street vendors have become an increasingly contentious issue in neighborhoods ranging from Chinatown to the Upper East Side.
In Midtown, one business improvement district recently declared all-out war against vendors, calling them "terrible citizens" and claiming that food and general merchandise sellers who set up carts, stalls and tables to hawk their wares are eyesores that clutter streets.
Last year, the city handed out more than 26,000 violations to street vendors for offenses such as vending too far from the curb, too close to crosswalks, or carrying their licenses in their pockets instead of visibly around their necks, activists said.
The Bloomberg administration objected to the lower fines, arguing that street vending is already out of control.
"Across the city, compliance with the vending rules and laws is poor, at best, and complaints continue to be very high. Therefore, we do not support decreasing penalties for vending violations," Kathleen McGee, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, said at the hearing.
A study released by the Street Vendor Project earlier Tuesday found that vendors are more likely to pay fines they can afford, and argued the city could actually bring in more revenue if fines were reduced.
The city doesn't agree, citing figures that only 10 percent of fines were paid in 2005, prior to the city's rate increase to the current levels, officials said.
Only 14 percent of the fines owed for vending violations were paid in 2010, officials said.
"Certainly at this point, we don’t see that lowering the penalties is going to increase compliance," McGee said.
Brooklyn City Councilman Vincent Gentile also argued the fines are fair, claiming that vendors rent permits for as much as $2,000 a week and can certainly afford to play by the rules.
"This is a big business," he said.
But others said changes are desperately needed.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, said that her office spends about half of its time dealing with vending issues, citing 15 complaints received via email on Tuesday morning alone.
"I’m begging you to sit down with all of us and figure this out," Brewer said at Tuesday's hearing. "It’s crazy. It’s like World War III."
But Heleodora Vivar-Flores, 68, a street vendor who has sold sunglasses, scarves and mitts at the corner of 179th Street and St. Nicholas in Washington Heights, said that fining vendors who are working hard to support their families isn’t the answer.
"What happens when we get these fines? It’s not possible to pay them," she said. "The families suffer the result."