Taxi Drivers Plan Hunger Strike For Debt Relief

Above Photo: Taxis parked in protest at New York City Hall. RBLFMR / Shutterstock.

A Group Of Protesters Hope The Action Will Force A New Plan From City Hall To Help Them Pay Off What They Owe On Medallion Loans.

After 30 days of protesting outside City Hall, a group of New York City taxi medallion owners is taking their call for greater debt relief to the next level. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance announced Monday that a group of taxi drivers will go on hunger strike starting on Wednesday to amplify their calls for the city to adopt a more aggressive debt relief plan for medallion owners. “We’re hoping the public understands the importance and the urgency of all this,” said Augustine Tang, a taxi medallion owner and driver who owes about $490,000 on his medallion loan. Tang plans to start fasting later this week. “We’ve been shutting down bridges, we’ve been protesting outside City Hall, outside Gracie Mansion. We’re telling (the city) this isn’t an issue we can just let go,” he said. “This is why we have to escalate it right now.”

Details of how the hunger strike will work are still being finalized, but Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the driver group New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said that dozens are signed up to join so far. “We cannot wait for the next administration,” Desai said. “Leaving drivers at $300,000 (or) $500,000 in debt is not a resolution. It’s a set-up for failure.”

Earlier this year, New York City announced a $65 million debt relief fund offering up to $29,000 in individual grants to act as down payments to help medallion owners restructure their loans with lenders. The city recently started to roll out this program, and as of Saturday had helped close 102 deals between medallion owners and lenders resulting in a collective $16 million in debt forgiveness. The city has said that their program will allow many medallion owners to see over $200,000 in debt forgiveness, with monthly loan payments of $1,500 or less. But driver advocates and the protesting medallion owners say the city’s program doesn’t go nearly far enough to help drivers who are upwards of $500,000 in debt, and will still leave them in financial distress.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is calling for the city to adopt an alternative proposal which would have New York City serve as a guarantor for all medallion loans. Their proposal calls for refinancing all medallion loans to $145,000, with monthly payments of no more than $800. The city argues that the Taxi Workers Alliance proposal is not financially feasible, though city Comptroller Scott Stringer has endorsed the proposal and called it fiscally sound.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who represents Western Queens, told City & State that he is joining the hunger strike on Wednesday and will participate until it’s done. When is that? When the city commits to the debt relief plan proposed by the Taxi Workers Alliance. “Too often, politicians and municipal governments get away with horrific policies because the consequences of them have been out of view,” Mamdani said. “Sometimes we have to bring those consequences front and center in front of City Hall in order to make people realize what it is that they’re actually asking working class New Yorkers to do.”

As the value of the taxi medallion has plummeted, an untold number of medallion owners have been overburdened by debt accrued on the once promising investments. Several taxi medallion owners have died by suicide in recent years.

Support for the Taxi Workers Alliance proposal has grown since their protest began, with 12 members of New York’s congressional delegation endorsing the proposal, along with dozens of state and city lawmakers. Spokespeople for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Taxi and Limousine Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Tang estimated that he’s spent an average of 12 hours per day protesting the city’s debt relief program outside City Hall over the past 30 days. “It’s getting colder. We understand what’s at stake, so a lot of people are still motivated,” Tang said. “It’s been tough, to say the least, but it’s nothing compared to the life we’re going to have if the city rolls out with their plan.”