New York City cabbies beg de Blasio for forgiveness, at last, of heavy medallion debt

Taxi drivers gathered outside of Gracie Mansion Tuesday morning to demand the Mayor keep his promises.
Photo by Dean Moses

Yellow taxicab drivers demonstrated outside of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official Upper East Side residence, on Tuesday morning to call again for medallion debt relief, shortly before they were scheduled to testify in a virtual hearing.

At the Jan. 26 rally, a cavalcade of yellow vehicles with signs plastered to their windows could be seen stretching down East End Avenue. Yelling into a megaphone and brandishing banners, the drivers protested as close as they could come to the publicly-owned mansion.

More than 30 cabbies admonished the Mayor for comments he has made over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring relief would come with the dawn of a new presidential administration.

By 9 a.m., Gracie Mansion was completely blocked off from the general public via steel railings and a host of keen-eyed NYPD officers. 

“Despite the fortress that the Mayor has tried to build around Gracie Mansion, we know our voices are going to be heard,” Bhairavi Desai, NYTWA executive director, said at the rally. 

“The City of New York sold medallions that they knew were overpriced. The lenders made money, the city made money, and they left the drivers to drown in life-long debt and poverty. This is a tragic New York story of broken promises going back years now. The same city officials that sold medallions at an inflated value and then allowed Uber and Lyft unregulated and those same officials then went to work with Uber and Lyft. Today there are thousands of owner-drivers who are facing life-long debt. If the debt crisis of the yellow cab industry is not solved, you are going to see massive foreclosures. Not only of the medallion but also of people’s homes. This is a tragedy in the making after years and years of injustice, which has been tragic enough,” Desai added. 

Yellow Taxicab drivers have had enough of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s broken promises. Photo by Dean Moses

The protesters and advocates charged that de Blasio has dragged his feet one too many times when it comes to putting forth a debt relief plan for NYC cab drivers.

The drivers cited an August 2020 speech in which de Blasio said a new presidential administration would aid in a bailout. Now, cabbies say they are standing outside his home in a new year, under a democratic president, but no aid is in sight less than a week after Joe Biden took office as president.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and state Attorney General Letitia James have previously endorsed the NYTWA debt relief plan, and now cab drivers want de Blasio to commit to the same.

“Mayor de Blasio made a promise to deliver on medallion debt relief once federal aid started to come in. Between the last COVID bill signed in January and more aid promised by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the White House and Congress, and the fact that there is a $40 Million surplus in the city’s Taxicab Improvement Fund, our proposal – a cost of $75 Million over 20 years – can get done right now. No more dragging his feet. No more broken promises. No more excuses, Mr. Mayor. It’s time to act for drivers who are going hungry because they were betrayed by the city and exploited by unscrupulous lenders. Our plan is good for the city, and it’s good for drivers. Our city Comptroller and state Attorney General both agree. We can’t afford to wait another day,” Desai said in a press release. 

New York City Taxicab drivers shared their personal experiences working 12-hour shifts and only making $100, yet they still own as much as $5,000 a month for their medallion debt. Photo by Dean Moses

On driver grabbed a megaphone and said, “We continue to serve the city of New York with dignity and respect,” before chanting adamantly with his colleagues, “Union power,” “Driver power,” and “Debt forgiveness now!”

amNewYork Metro reached out to the Mayor’s office for comment on this story, and is awaiting a response.

The drivers—many of whom were elderly—say with a new year and a Democratic president, now is the time to make good on his words. Amidst frigid 35-degree temperatures, the group shared their plight. The pandemic has significantly reduced ridership, and during that time about 83% of drivers could not even afford food let alone survive the quarantine period. Still, they are expected to miraculously pay their medallion debt. 

One man said tearfully as his voice cracked in dismay, “We are dying, how much more do you want from us? It’s time for you to take immediate action.” He then glanced at Gracie Mansion in disgust stating, “Why all of the barricades like you are preparing for war? We are asking for justice. You can’t keep doing this to us, we are immigrants, but we are American’s first!  What you are doing is not American. It’s not even human. You are violating our human rights. That’s not living, that’s slavery.” 

Ricardo Lopez is 69 years old and has been a taxi driver for decades, but he is now almost bankrupt due to his $5,000 monthly medallion debt obligations that have forced him to work 12 hours straight for little return.

Cab drivers rally at Gracie Mansion for debt relief. Photo by Dean Moses

Lopez is at a loss. He owes over $400,000 in debt. He has no promise of pension or retirement since he has to work to pay off his debt.

“It is impossible to buy a medallion, they are $70,000. It’s impossible to make money now. I hope we can receive help from Mr. de Blasio and all of the promises he made, it’s time to comply. I’m out of this business soon,” Lopez said. 

Long before the pandemic the cost of a medallion auctions have been sold at inflated prices, garnering a lawsuit by the NYS Attorney General who sought $850 million in damages that the city collected from 2002 and 2012. These hardships have caused many in the workforce to resort to suicide said those at the demonstration.

“My brother could not make the money to pay the loan, so he committed suicide right in the East River. This is the city’s responsibility,” said Richard Cho. 

Even prior to the pandemic, conditions for drivers were prone to falling behind in medallion payments. The City Council Medallion Taskforce reported last February that in 2018, nine drivers committed suicide, and three of them were owner-drivers. Protesters shared how their economic despair turned into pure turmoil as COVID-19 ravaged the city, causing them to fall even further into debt. 

Overworked and impoverished drivers are tired of drowning in medallion debt. Photo by Dean Moses

Drivers are proposing that the Mayor consider shifting the city’s role as a backstop for all loans refinanced to no greater than $125,000 over 20 years, which would cost $757 monthly in mortgage payments. (This lowers the interest rate to 4%). 

In addition, as a part of the next stimulus package, Congressman Gregory Meeks put forward a house bill that pushes tax exemption on debt forgiveness, which allows drivers time to get back on their feet. 

Other drivers say they are immigrants and have been working tirelessly to ensure their American dream is realized. Although that dream is now being ripped away from them. After years of working, the majority of their lives have been a constant uphill battle of owing money and earning very little, even losing their pensions because they can’t keep up with payments. 

“Don’t turn us out, keep you promises! No more suicide! No more bankruptcy! Debt forgiveness now,” one demonstrator pleaded. 

A host of yellow taxicabs lined East End Avenue in protest to the Mayor’s lack of support for drivers. Photo by Dean Moses

The demonstration concluded with Desai stating that the mayor cannot hide from them within a fortress he constructed out of NYPD funds, she says they are merely asking for what they deserve and what drivers have worked for 10-fold. “End this crisis, the money is there. All we need from the Mayor is to politically do the right thing,” Desai said. 

“Wake up Mr. Mayor and do the right thing,” she demanded.

Soon thereafter the group retreated into their cars where they testified at the virtual hearing.

New York City cab drivers pleaded with Mayor to take action and stop making excuses. Photo by Dean Moses