As the world stays home, street vendors fight to survive

Bouquets of flowers can be seen left on the road by street sellers at Kadikoy in Istanbul, on April 12, 2020. (Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)

On a typical day, Istanbul’s streets hum with the sounds of small-scale commerce: vendors with trays of bread rings balanced on their heads, or pushcarts piled high with seasonal fruits and vegetables, calling out their wares to passers-by as they weave through the city’s crowds. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Turkey in mid-March, however, those once-vibrant streets have largely gone silent, leaving the people who form an essential part of the urban fabric in a precarious position.

“Street vendors work to earn money for the next day, not for the day after that. But these days, they can’t go out to the streets, and if they do, they can’t find any customers there,” says Dr. Osman Sirkeci, the head of a recently established municipal body working on street economy issues in the Turkish city of İzmir. He estimates that only 10% to 15% of street vendors in Turkey are currently able to make even a minimal living.

Around the world, street vendors are among the most vulnerable to the ongoing economic turmoil wrought by the coronavirus — and potentially to the disease itself. Many are part of a two-billion-strong global workforce of the informally employed that is often poor, lacking in job security and health care, unable to “socially distance” by working from home, and unable to access government support. A growing number of initiatives by street vendors and their advocates aim to help these workers recover some of their income while simultaneously bolstering the cities where they operate.

“Street vendors are very important in providing what communities need, whether it’s the halal food carts in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, or the hundreds of different cuisines in Corona or Jackson Heights [in Queens], that reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood,” says Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Street Vendor Project in New York City. “There’s also a security aspect: street vendors are the eyes and ears for the city, lighting up our sidewalks at night and making them feel safe”.

The Street Vendor Project has initiated a crowd-funding campaign to provide small emergency relief payments to its 2,000 members, people like Mamdouh Elgammal, a vendor originally from Alexandria, Egypt, who has been operating a halal food cart outside of LaGuardia Community College in Queens for the past 20 years.

“I do well over there, but most of my customers are students, so once the schools closed, there was no one on the streets. I haven’t worked since 5 March,” says Elgammal, who is the sole financial provider for his family of four. “It’s almost at the end of the month, so that’s going to be the second month with no money for rent,” he says. “To be honest, I think I can only last like this for a couple of weeks more. I’ve had customers call me, they say they miss my sandwiches, but they can’t go out right now”.

The Street Vendor Project’s crowd-funding campaign has raised more than $70,000 in under a month, a sign, executive director Attia says, that “New Yorkers look out for each other and understand the value of street vendors to our urban culture”.

The group is also working to get some of New York’s 20,000 street vendors included in municipal contracts to deliver food to people left homebound by the pandemic. A similar effort is underway in the UK, where the Nationwide Caterers Association is connecting food truck operators and other mobile vendors with gigs feeding essential workers, including healthcare staff at the NHS. In Barcelona, members of a migrant street vendors union are being employed by a food bank to deliver groceries to needy families.

Such initiatives highlight one of the most crucial roles street vendors play globally.

“Research unequivocally shows that the informal economy is absolutely critical to food security, particularly in lower-income communities,” says Caroline Skinner, urban research director for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing (WIEGO). Street and market vendors reach areas without supermarkets, offer low-cost alternatives to restaurant meals, often extend credit to regular customers, and sell in smaller, more affordable quantities. And even during a pandemic, Skinner says, “they can trade as safely as supermarkets as long as they have water supplies and sanitizer at hand”.

Many national and local governments have in fact classified mobile food vendors, especially those selling fresh produce and other staples, as essential workers. But they still face an array of obstacles, including drastically reduced foot traffic by potential customers; restrictions on travel between rural areas where food is grown and cities where it is sold; and rising prices for their stock due to hoarding by more well-off consumers.

“Governments don’t really understand how the informal economy functions, even in countries where it makes up 80% to 90% of the workforce,” says Oksana Abboud, international coordinator for StreetNet International, a global alliance of membership-based street vendors’ organizations. “So we are encouraging our members to propose practical, bottom-up solutions, like working in shifts at street markets to ensure that everyone gets at least some very basic income, rather than closing them altogether”.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many vendors were quick to take to the streets with masks and hand sanitizer for sale. In some cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC, they are being more formally incorporated into public-health efforts to get coronavirus-related information and supplies into underserved communities.

Elsewhere, street vendors are partnering with local taxi and rickshaw drivers to expand their customer bases by home-delivering meals. Some of these pairings are happening organically. In Bangkok’s Old Town in Thailand, vendors got a boost from employees of the Once Again Hostel, who started the online platform Locall.bkk to promote the street vendors they used to recommend to their now-vanished guests.

“These vendors don’t always know how to work with digital platforms, so this has been a good way to introduce them to more people. The volume of orders has doubled every week since we started,” says Peangploy Jitpiyatham, cofounder of Locall.bkk, which coordinates delivery by underemployed motorcycle drivers of cooked dishes, baked goods, beverages, and snacks made by some 60 different vendors. “We do a lot of work with local social enterprises, so this is not just a pop-up,” Jitpiyatham says. “It’s part of the relationship we have with the community, a tool to help everyone work together”.

Despite their creativity, few of these initiatives can fully make up for street vendors’ lost income, so most advocacy groups are pushing governments to provide some kind of emergency cash support during the pandemic, and to make sure relief programmes are inclusive of all workers, now and in the future.

“Amid the darkness of coronavirus, there are some real opportunities to address the fault lines it has amplified so dramatically,” says Skinner of WIEGO, who emphasizes the importance of governments reaching out to grassroots networks of informal workers like street vendors to incorporate them into social-protection systems and tap their expertise.

That’s just what Dr. Sirkeci has been hired to do in İzmir, Turkey, where he is bringing together – virtually, of course – members of different street vendors’ associations in the city to talk about their daily problems and discuss possible solutions.

“Street vendors are always ready to adapt to a new situation,” he says. “It’s not like a big company that needs many months to change. They are ready every time.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. 


How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  

While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.