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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Street vendors hope to gain more influence in Jackson Heights

On any given day along a three-block stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, nearly a dozen food carts do a brisk business selling sweets and savories, from basic hot dogs to obleas (waffles drenched in caramel, Latin-American style).

Business is good, but for some cart owners it stands on shaky ground. They are immigrants who shell out as much as $25,000 on the black market to “rent” their two-year vendors’ permits from people who have paid the city as little as $75 for them. Worse, the authorities have vowed to revoke any permits found to be involved in this rule-breaking.

Now cart owners and other voiceless groups hope to gain influence via a push to hugely expand the local business improvement district. As part of that effort, the 82nd Street Partnership hopes to become the first BID to seat curbside entrepreneurs, as well as members of the LGBT community and young people, on its board. Such status promises to give these groups within the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst-Corona community not just a higher stature but a real voice in local matters.

“The fact that there will be a place on the board for us will make people realize that the LGBT community is important,” said Arely Gonzalez, a transgender woman who has lived in Jackson Heights for six years. “It’s about being at the table and included in anything being proposed.”

Among other things, she pointed out that many LGBTs face employment discrimination. She hopes board representation would help alleviate the problem by making it more of an issue, as well as by alerting the LGBT community about pending job-generating projects.

Though city officials note that members of all three groups hold memberships and even board positions at some of the other 69 BIDs around the city, the 82nd Street Partnership is the first specifically to express interest in having all three represented on its board.

“Our BID is about the community we work in and work with,” said Leslie Ramos, who stepped in as the partnership’s executive director late last year. She noted that by focusing on these groups for board membership, her effort is not about establishing “quotas” but letting these groups know “we are an open and inclusive organization.”

Change of heart

She sees it as part of an effort to allay fears that a bigger BID would only further diminish the standing of the area’s street vendors, LGBTs and youths. As part of her sales effort, she has met with an array of local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Among those was Make the Road NYC, a prominent activist group that had opposed the expansion. It had a change of heart after receiving assurances that the BID would not just open its boardroom door to a more diverse group of candidates, but also actively reach out to them.

Though statutes require that property owners make up the majority of the board and all must be at least 18 years old, Ms. Ramos plans personally to encourage other groups to put forth candidates for the 25 voting seats and at least three nonvoting ones.

Many street vendors who once feared the expansion now see it as a real plus. “Before, we were worried about being displaced by the BID, and now we believe it will make the working situation better for us,” said Claudia Lopez, the owner of a food cart that serves churros, or fried dough, and sugared peanuts. A veritable fixture on Roos-evelt Avenue for more than two decades, she expects representation to help cut down on summonses against curbside vendors.

Under the proposal, the BID, which runs along 82nd Street from 37th Avenue to Baxter Avenue in the communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, would stretch all the way into Corona. It would encompass 1,069 commercial, retail and office spaces, nearly six times the current 186.

Not everyone is on board, however. Queens Neighborhoods United, a coalition of organizations and community members from Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, believes business improvement districts, by their very structure, favor property owners. What’s more, the coalition charges that BIDs lead to increased property values that trigger higher property taxes, which landlords then pass on to tenants by raising rents.

“Small businesses cannot pay the hike in rents and must vacate, leaving empty stores,” said Tania Mattos, a QNU organizer.

A date for submitting the proposed expansion plan to the Department of Small Business Services has yet to be set, despite more than 18 months of discussions. But Ms. Ramos hopes to do so by July. At that point, a lengthy review process would begin and could take as long as a year. It would involve the City Planning Commission, community boards, borough president, City Council and mayor, who signs the proposal into law. Roughly two months after all the meetings and approvals have wrapped up, the BID would hold board elections.

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