Taxi drivers go on hunger strike outside City Hall

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At the taxi drivers’ vigil on Broadway near City Hall Park, crates of coconut water replaced platters of rice and vegetables generously spiced with chillies.

On October 20, eight owner-drivers went on hunger strike, demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio add loan guarantees to the city’s revised budget, due on October 31, to reduce the crushing debt they carry. .

“The city is still not responding to our call for real debt relief,” said Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The independent. The union said the mayor’s inaction condemns drivers “to a life of poverty and death in a debt trap.”

Drivers chanted “We want justice / Let’s talk to the union,” interrupted by resounding warnings that anyone parked three times south of Chambers Street would have to move their cab if they didn’t want it towed.

Individual drivers own about 40 to 45 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow-medallion taxis, the only ones allowed to take street calls in midtown Manhattan, south of Harlem. For decades, owning a locket was a career ticket for taxi drivers, now almost all immigrants. This allowed them to work for themselves instead of renting from a fleet and was an asset for their retirement.

But driver-owners have been hit hardest by the crises that have hit the industry over the past seven years. Driver incomes, stagnant for years, plummeted after the city allowed Uber and Lyft to flood the streets with their cars. Between late 2017 and early 2019, nine financially strapped taxi drivers, from owner-operators of yellow taxis to Uber / Lyft, to delivery car drivers and black cab drivers, committed suicide.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez meets hunger strike taxi drivers in their protest camp on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. Photo: Augustin Tang.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown almost completely wiped out their street hail activity. “Half of the taxis are in storage,” Desai told rally attendees.

A third element aggravates the crisis: the value of medallions more than quintupled from 2001 to 2014, reaching more than a million dollars, then the arrival of taxis based on applications burst the bubble. The driver-owners could not earn enough money to repay their loans, and their medallions had depreciated so much that if they sold them they would still be personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of debts.

The mayor “must resolve the crisis,” said Richard Chow, one of the hunger strikers. He spent $ 410,000 on his locket in 2006 and now has monthly loan payments of $ 2,766. The lender offered to reduce its debt to $ 275,000, with payments of $ 1,600.

Chow, a Chinese immigrant in his sixties, seems to have his face permanently saddened. His younger brother in debt was one of nine suicides.

“Even $ 1,600, I can’t afford it,” he says. “There isn’t enough business there.”

RIVAL EMERGENCY PLANS

NYTWA and the City Taxi and Limousine Commission have competing debt relief plans.

The TLC estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 of the approximately 6,000 individual owners are in debt, for amounts ranging from less than $ 25,000 to $ 550,000. He says it cannot be more specific as the loan documents are private, except for the 1,800 medallions that the city auctioned off when it increased the number of yellow taxis between 1996 and 2014. (L The Bloomberg administration was happy to collect around $ 850 million in bubble revenue, the last auction, in February 2014, being announced with leaflets touting “It’s better than the stock market.”

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance estimates that at least 4,000 landlords have debt problems, although only about 3,000 drive their own cabs. Many, Desai says, are retired, still owe money, and hire taxis from other drivers through brokers – a business that collapsed during the pandemic.

A 2019 survey of 450 drivers by TLC found their average debt to be $ 499,000.

TLC’s Medallion Relief Program, unveiled in late August, would provide $ 65 million in grants to struggling homeowners. This would give them $ 20,000 for down payments to lenders who restructure the loan principals and set lower monthly payments, plus up to $ 9,000 to help them with monthly payments in the first year.

As of Oct. 16, the mayor’s office said, the program had helped 102 owners of yellow inscribed taxis, nearly halving their average debt of about $ 325,000. City-backed renegotiations with the lenders wiped out the remaining debt of 21 of them, generally relatively small amounts, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Over 1,000 more owners are in the works, after making an appointment with TLC’s Owner / Operator Resource Center.

The TLC came up with the idea of ​​down payment grants last year, when, in its efforts to help drivers survive the loss of work during the pandemic, it found that having a down payment was the best leverage that they were willing to get lenders to renegotiate, but drivers usually still had to borrow money from family or friends.

The commission says it has been able to reduce payments for some drivers to less than $ 1,500 per month.

This level is still “not sustainable,” Desai says. The NYTWA proposal would give drivers grants of $ 30,000 which they would use for down payments if lenders reduced their total debt to $ 175,000. The city would then guarantee the remaining $ 145,000, and payments would be set at $ 800 per month – low enough, Desai says, that drivers earn at least minimum wage.

Lenders would still make a profit, she argues, because most “bought their loans on the secondary market for as little as $ 115,000.”

If the driver did not repay the loan, the lenders could repossess the lockets and the city’s guarantee would cover the difference between the amount owed and the market value of the locket. Assuming a 5% default rate, that would cost the city $ 93 million over 30 years – less, according to Desai, than the annual revenues from the $ 2.50 congestion surcharge added to tariffs in midtown Manhattan. south of 96th Street in 2019.

“I counted the numbers. It makes sense, ”said City Comptroller Scott Stringer. “This proposal will save an industry, save lives. We must do everything possible.

“We need to see the city’s initiative as a start and we need to keep pushing for additional support for struggling individual medallion owners,” said city council transport committee chairman Ydanis Rodriguez (D- Manhattan), in a statement, urging people to “listen to the concerns of Taxi Workers Alliance advocates” and follow the recommendations made by the council’s Taxi Medallion task force in 2020.

The hunger strike will rotate the participants, so that no one will starve to death in anorexic damage. Other attendees will include New York State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani (D-Queens) and elected city council member Shahana Hanif (D-Brooklyn), who led the crowd in a song of appeal. and answer in Bengali.

Debt relief, Mamdani said, will make the difference between “just postponing and stopping the devastation and suicide.”

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