Dying for debt relief: Why are NYC taxi drivers on hunger strike?

Battered by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling debt, New York City medallion owners are demanding more meaningful debt relief.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) wants outstanding medallion loan debt capped at $145,000 and monthly payments at $800 [Photo courtesy of Brian Osgood]

New York City, the United States — When Richard and Kenny Chow moved with their family to the United States from Taiwan in 1987, the iconic yellow taxi cabs that ferry New Yorkers from place to place were a symbol of the city, and of the opportunity for a better life in their new home.

That promise was also perpetuated by city officials. They promoted medallions – the certification necessary to operate yellow cabs – as a reliable investment that, paired with hard work, could open the doors of prosperity. It was a pitch that resonated with many immigrant workers.

According to New York City data, 40 percent of medallion owners are from South Asia.

For years, drivers say the deal held up. After buying a medallion for $410,000 in 2006, Richard said he was “making the American dream, bringing in money and providing for my family”, which by then included two children.

He said his brother Kenny was so encouraged by that success that he saved up enough for a down payment on a medallion for which he paid over $700,000 in 2009.

“He believed it was a very safe investment,” Richard told Al Jazeera. “He trusted the city.”

But that trust was shattered with the advent of app-based ride-sharing.

As Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services took off with consumers, work became scarcer for New York City cab drivers.

Like other medallion owners, Kenny and Richard were left holding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt for certifications that had plummeted in value – and working a job that drivers tell Al Jazeera currently pays little more than minimum wage.

Hunger striker Richard Chow said he bought his medallion in 2006 for $410,000 and his current monthly payments on his outstanding debt are $2,766 [Courtesy of Brian Osgood]

According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), a union with 21,000 members, the average owner-driver owes $550,000 on medallions that are worth just over $100,000 apiece.

Richard said he bought his medallion in 2006 for $410,000. His monthly payments on his roughly $400,000 of outstanding debt are $2,766.

That’s why Richard and other cab drivers have gathered outside of New York City Hall for over a month to call for meaningful debt relief that they say is crucial for their survival.

At the centre of their demands is a proposal from NYTWA that would cap outstanding medallion loan debt at $145,000 and monthly payments at $800.

The city does have a $65m debt relief programme for medallion owners. But NYTWA  has blasted the scheme as “nothing more than a banker bailout” that’s “going to give $65 million directly to the banks and hedge funds that own medallion debt in exchange for a negligible reduction in the principal owed on them”.

The current programme also doesn’t cover some people saddled with medallion debt.

“Under the mayor’s plan, I don’t qualify,” Kuber Sancho Persad, a 26-year-old yellow cab driver who is on hunger strike, told Al Jazeera. “Right now I have over $600,000 in debt that my dad, who was a driver, left when he died four years ago. My mom got sick and couldn’t work, so I started driving full time in 2016.”

Driven to suicide

The plight of heavily indebted drivers has received attention from politicians such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.  They have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to embrace NYTWA’s relief programme proposal.

While de Blasio’s administration has not made a statement since the hunger strike began, a press release from October 16 lauded the city’s $65m plan, saying it has so far resulted in more than $16m in debt relief for medallion owners.

But some New York City officials are of the view that the current debt relief programme is insufficient.

“The city’s current plan provides a modicum of help in restructuring loans where the owner-driver and lender can agree on the terms,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Al Jazeera in a statement. “But for hundreds – if not thousands – of owner-drivers, the gap is simply too large.”

“The NYTWA proposed an orderly way to allow the debt to be reduced that will protect both the drivers and the lenders,” Stringer added.  “Without that, there are going to be more bankruptcy, more despair, and more dreams ruined.”

Drivers say that the mayor has not been responsive. So in an escalation of tactics, several of them began a hunger strike at noon on October 20.

Richard Chow, now 63 years old, is among them. Sitting in a chair alongside drivers from India, South Korea, Romania and Poland, Chow says one driver is noticeably absent: his brother Kenny.

“When the medallion lost its value, he was devastated. He lost everything,” said Richard.

Struggling with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt, Kenny Chow took his own life in 2018, one of nine drivers who have committed suicide in recent years.

“I lost my brother. I had my heart broken,” said Chow.

While the medallion once offered a path to the American dream for immigrants, it also brought in substantial revenue for the city. According to a 2019 investigative series by The New York Times, taxi medallions earned more than $850m in revenue for the city across the administrations of Bill di Blasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as prices became artificially inflated by industry leaders who steered drivers into exorbitant loans.

Chime Gyatso, a taxi driver who emigrated from India in the late 1990s and is currently on hunger strike, said the city promoted the medallion as a good investment.

“They were selling medallions for a million dollars,” he said. “The city cheated us. I bought a medallion for $850,000 in 2014. With Uber and Lyft there’s no business, so how can I pay the money? I still owe over $600,000.”

A memorial to New York City medallion owners who committed suicide [Courtesy of Brian Osgood]

The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact on passenger numbers has also made life increasingly difficult for yellow cab drivers.

Wain Chin, a 54-year-old driver from Myanmar who is on hunger strike, owes over $570,000. “Some nights I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about how I’m going to pay it off,” he said. “We have to compete with Uber and Lyft, and they have so many cars on the street. We barely make minimum wage anymore. Even in my lifetime, I won’t be able to pay off the loans.”

While the stakes are high, drivers say that the feeling of fighting together has been invigorating.

“We’re putting our body on the line. Without relief there will be more pressure on the driver,” said Wain Chin. “I hope the mayor listens to us. Even with his plan, the debt is too much.”

If the hunger strike fails to lead to the adoption of the NYTWA plan, Mohammad Tipu Sultan, a former yellow cab driver and current organiser with NYTWA, says the drivers will continue to fight. “We’ll keep building momentum,” he said. “The mayor has to see how big we are, how powerful we are. We are the ones who run the city.”

Source: Al Jazeera