- The daughter of an immigrant taxi cab owner claims the mayor’s plan is nowhere near what New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which has a sizable South Asian American membership, has been advocating for.
New York City Council candidate and Ozone Park, Queens resident Felicia Singh rallied with her family and taxi owners, drivers and members of New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor, March 9, just hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his taxi medallion owner-driver fund plan.
The fund will offer debt relief to taxi medallion owners and drivers who have been drowning in debt, with several Queens immigrants resorting to suicide since the market collapsed in 2019. Over 950 taxi drivers have claimed bankruptcy, lost their livelihoods, and their lives during the medallion crisis, according to a report by The New York Times.
“Medallion owners have been hit hard by this pandemic. They deserve all the support we can give them as ridership recovers,” de Blasio said during his morning briefing, as reported by QNS. “This program creates a pathway to solvency and supports the yellow medallion taxi industry’s important role in building a recovery for us all.”
The city is pledging $65 million toward a taxi medallion owner-driver relief fund to ensure the already ravaged industry doesn’t fall further into ruin. The mayor said that as of this past weekend, with the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passing, the city now has some money to dedicate to taxi drivers. The city will provide upfront up to $20,000 in loans to restructure medallion debt and up to an additional $9,000 in debt payment support.
South Asians, many hailing from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, make up 30 percent of the 185,000 licensed drivers who are behind the wheels of New York’s yellow and green cabs and for-hire vehicles, according to 2018 data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
“The mayor released a ‘debt relief’ plan today using $65 million of COVID relief. This is a plan that is nowhere near what New York Taxi Workers Alliance has been advocating for,” Singh, a strong critic of the plan told American Kahani via email. “This plan makes me ask more questions rather than feel any relief. There are about 170,000 taxi drivers in this city,” she said. “How many would qualify for this ‘plan’ How does this plan impact the restructuring of loans? What does $9,000 in debt payment support look like? Who qualifies for it? Lenders still keep getting money. This is not a plan that is equitable, sustainable or feasible for taxi drivers and their families. It’s clear who is prioritized here and it’s not immigrant and working-class New Yorkers. NYTWA has a plan. NYC Comptroller [Scott Stringer] approves. [New York State Senator] Jessica Ramos has a plan. It’s time to get on board.”
Singh, a teacher, who is running for the District 32 City Council seat and daughter of an immigrant taxi cab driver, was thrown into the forefront of the medallion crisis when she discovered a “for sale” sign posted in front of her family’s Ozone Park home. Her father Dalip Singh was unable to keep up with the crushing fees that were based on his medallion loan and he filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The family was unaware that the house was for sale until a broker hired by the bankruptcy court informed them. They now have about 57 days to come up with $250,000 or her family will be foreclosed on.
“I used to roll my eyes when my dad told me he came to this country with $25 in his pocket, the quintessential American immigrant story that is passed down from generation to generation,” Singh said during testimony in the state Senate last week. “The sheer courage it takes to try to make it here with so little money seemed impossible, so I didn’t believe it. Now, after raising three children, and attempting to own a small business, he can barely make $25 a day,” Singh said during the testimony. “After 35 years of driving a taxi and after 23 years of being a medallion owner, my father had no choice but to file for bankruptcy because of the medallion crisis. Our home is being taken from us because of its value not because we’ve foreclosed on our home. It’s being taken because our court and medallion system is able to trade our debt for our home. My family and I are one of many families who could be unhoused as a result of the city and state’s negligence.”
Singh also remembered several Queens drivers who committed suicide after the crisis began. “Douglas Schifter, Fausto Lun, Abdul Saleh, Danilo Castillo, Alfredo Perez. These are the names of the taxi drivers who have transitioned by suicide. They were reason enough to do something,” Singh testified. “The medallion system was meant to reign in congestion in the city. By limiting the number of medallions, the city created an artificial market, which it then exploited to raise revenue. The city has made more than $855 million from taxi medallions and collecting taxes on private sales,” she said. “Meanwhile, they opened the floodgates to Uber and Lyft, which eroded the medallions’ supposed monopoly rights to conduct street hails.”
The plan, however, was quickly criticized by cab drivers and progressive lawmakers–such as State Sen. Jessica Ramos–who say it doesn’t begin to address the amount of debt drivers are drowning in saying it’s too little too late for the victims of the medallion crisis, and calling it a cash bailout for the predatory lenders.
“The idea of purchasing a medallion was supposed to be about our ticket to this middle-class life. But really, it was just a ticket to debt,” Singh said. “I’ve always known a life of debt. And now you have people like my family at risk of losing their home.”
Singh and allies have been advocating for the Mayor and City Council to adopt the NY Taxi Alliance’s Plan, which has already been approved by Comptroller Stringer and AG James.
Senator Schumer has pledged his leadership behind this debt relief plan. “This isn’t going to be nearly enough,” Ramos wrote on Twitter. “Average owner-driver debt was at $500,000 prior to the pandemic. We need real debt forgiveness and a robust plan so no more taxi drivers face bankruptcy and lose their homes, their retirement savings, or worse.”
The proposal, which will be funded with money from the COVID-19 federal stimulus package, was also sharply chastised by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the union representing about 21,000 drivers. “The mayor’s plan is a disgraceful betrayal from a city that already has blood on its hands,” NYTWA Executive Director Bhairavi Desai said in a statement.
Desai said the mayor’s plan falls short of addressing the massive debt many medallion owners have racked up from the loans they took out to pay for a medallion years ago. “Mayor de Blasio’s response to our debt crisis does absolutely nothing for drivers,” she said. “It’s a cash bailout for lenders while drivers are left to drown in debt, foreclosure, and bankruptcy.”
The NYTWA twitter page also called out de Blasio for “bailing out hedge funds with his taxi medallion plan instead of lifting up working class New Yorkers,” stating that “he’s in the pockets of the rich and powerful now.”
The union wants the city to cut every driver’s debt to $125,000. Medallion owner-drivers owed an average of $500,000 in debt prior to the pandemic, according to advocates. De Blasio said the plan will help yellow cab drivers, who have seen ridership plummet since the pandemic began. However, medallion owners had been struggling even before COVID-19 struck according to NYTWA. Many immigrant New Yorkers bought the sought-after medallions with money borrowed from questionable lenders, according to the NYTWA. The medallions, which at one time were seen as good investments, permit a driver to own a yellow cab and be their own boss.
The crisis emerged when unregulated ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft came to New York City and took business away from yellow cabs. However, the apps exacerbated an already-existing problem caused by a handful of taxi company owners — in concert with unscrupulous lenders and city officials — who artificially drove up the price of the medallions year after year, the NYTWA told Astoria Post.
Desai announced that NYTWA members have decided to protest outside Gracie Mansion every day from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. until the mayor agrees to a better plan. “There’s no peace without justice for drivers. This is a disgraceful betrayal from a city that already has blood on its hands,” Desai tweeted.
(Top photo of Felicia Singh by Nicole Millman, courtesy cityandstateny.com)
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.