Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and this week we hear from some of New York City’s long-suffering cab drivers, several of whom have spent the past few days camped out outside City Hall as part of a protest organized by the NY Taxi Workers Alliance, a trade group. Keep reading for their stories. The drivers are protesting a recent plan announced by the city to take $65 million in federal stimulus funds and use them to offer interest-free down payment loans that the drivers can use to restructure their significant debts.
The whole sordid tale was painstakingly documented by The New York Times’ Brian Rosenthal in a 2019 Pulitzer-winning investigative series, but to briefly recap the situation: New York City for decades issued a limited number of so-called taxi medallions, which are effectively licenses allowing cabs to operate in the five boroughs. These are capped, with a current number around 13,000. Their limited quantities plus the guaranteed solid income from driving a cab drove these medallions’ prices up, a trend that was exacerbated by predatory lenders and the city’s own desire to use medallion sales as a cash cow.
The bubble burst sometime around late 2014. Paired with the emergence of unlicensed and theoretically unlimited for-hire vehicles associated with companies like Uber and Lyft, medallion prices plummeted even as cab drivers faced exploding competition and were undercut by app-based companies that could artificially lower their prices with gobs of venture capital cash. Drivers were left owing amounts averaging around $500,000, debts that were mostly held by credit unions and private lenders and featured untenable monthly payments that could bankrupt drivers and trigger foreclosures, including of homes that had been used as collateral. A spate of driver suicides drew attention to the issue, and after a number of proposals were floated at the state and federal levels, the city announced it would attempt to find a solution directly. This solution is what the drivers are protesting, under the argument that it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Under it, the city would provide up to $29,000 per driver in an interest-free loan that it would utilize as leverage to negotiate a restructuring with the firms that still hold the driver debt.
Hakan, a driver who asked not to be identified by his full name as he feared harassment from lenders, was indignant about the mayor’s proposal, which stops short of the NYTWA’s own plan of having the city directly guarantee loans and restructure them down to a maximum of $145,000 with a top monthly payment of $800. “The mayor keeps saying ‘I’m sorry.’ What do you mean you’re sorry? [The city is] the one who created this crisis, and you have the power to fix this problem.You keep saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ we don’t need your sorry. Once the bank sends me a foreclosure letter, I cannot tell them, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
He says he paid $880,000 for his medallion in 2007, and still owes $660,000, which may as well be a million or a billion for him: “It is not possible to pay.”
Augustine Tang, a 37-year-old driver who took the medallion over from his father and has been somewhat of a spokesman and an avatar for a new generation of drivers, said that the action is taking place now because the relief is needed now, as soon as possible. Asked if the NYTWA had been in touch with the campaign of likely next mayor Eric Adams, who would take over early next year, Tang said, “We don’t have that time. A lot of lenders are already trying to foreclose on us.”
Both Tang and Hakan emphasize that this isn’t just a crisis that happened in the city, but was in large part triggered by the city government itself, through aggressive marketing of medallions and a lax approach to oversight. “Time and time again, it just seems like the city doesn’t care about these immigrant drivers and it’s upsetting. These guys trusted the city,” said Tang, pointing to a group of senior-aged drivers milling about in the NYTWA’s little station just outside City Hall. Hakan also pointed out the disconnect between a wild-west, unregulated lending market and app-based driver economy and highly regulated taxicab pricing and operations. “Every five minutes, [ride-hail apps] have a price change, up and down. Okay, it’s between you and the customer, but how can I compete? My price, for six years it’s the same thing. Snow, rain. … If I have a coffee shop, I can make my own price, I can sell the coffee for $1 or $10. But in this industry, it’s not up to me,” he said.
As for the future of the industry as a whole, would debt forgiveness help save it, or has this soured drivers on the profession forever? Tang believes cabs will still be around a lot longer. “There’s just a lot of things wrong with it, but the medallion-owner drivers are probably the best thing about this industry,” he said. “Many folks would still drive, a lot of them have sons and daughters that are willing to drive. But with our campaign not ending yet, why even put yourself out there, get into this? You know, it’s just a life of indentured servitude.”