December 4, 2021

‘I’m going to be enslaved’: NYC taxi drivers on hunger strike beg for rescue from heavy debts

Brooklyn taxi driver Augustine Tang has been sleeping out of his yellow cab outside City Hall for several nights without any food since Friday in protest of the city’s medallion relief program.
“The first three days was probably the hardest. You just constantly think of food. I’m constantly tired and have a headache constantly too, but it’s ok, I’ve been staying well hydrated,” the 37-year-old said. “I’m ok right now, but I know what’s at stake and understand that this has to happen and unfortunately it has to happen for the people and the city to do something about it.”
Tang is part of a hunger strike that entered its second week outside City Hall Wednesday, Oct. 27, with cabbies camped out 24/7 demanding Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Taxi and Limousine Commission provide a better deal to rescue the drivers from drowning in debts.
Wednesday was also the 39th day taxi workers have been stationed outside the seat of municipal government in protest, with some, like Tang, staying overnight in their cars.
Tang inherited his medallion — the city’s license to operate a cab within the Five Boroughs — from his father in 2016 after he died and followed in his footsteps as a point of pride.
“He was just so proud of owning a piece of New York that I just had to make that decision to keep it,” said Tang.
However, the medallion came with a hefty debt and Tang currently owes $530,000 on the permit.

Augustine Tang has been on hunger strike for six days and has spent many nights sleeping in his cab outside City Hall.Photo by Kevin Duggan

The price for drivers to get one of these medallions inflated to $1 million in the years leading up to 2014 due to a creditor-driven bubble, before plummeting back to $100,000 and saddling owners with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan debt they took out to get the permits.
Meanwhile the city failed to provide a check on the rising prices and raked in a whopping $855 million by selling the medallions [1].
The debt crisis drove nine cab operators do kill themselves, and one protester said the only thing stopping him was taking care of his four children.
“I was thinking about committing suicide, but on the other hand I’m like, who’s going to look after them,” said Mouhamadou Aliyu, who has been driving a taxi since 2001.
Aliyu said he owes $630,000 on his medallion, amounting to about $2,500 in monthly payments, which doesn’t account for other costs like car payments and insurance.
“I’m going to be enslaved, the city’s going to enslave me the rest of my life — not only me, including my little ones — to pay for this debt because I will never ever be able to pay for it,” he said.

Bronx taxi driver Mouhamadou Aliyu stands next to his cab.Photo by Kevin Duggan

The TLC, which regulates the city’s for-hire vehicle industry, earlier this month green-lit [2] its so-called Taxi Medallion Owner Relief Program [3], or MRP, offering grants of up to $20,000 to individual medallion owners to help them restructure their loans and lower monthly payments, in addition to $9,000 in monthly debt payment assistance.
The agency has secured 155 deals with lenders so far with lenders, wiping off $20 million in debt from drivers who originally had a total of $48 million owed, according to TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg.
That’s not nearly enough for many drivers such as Tang, who called it a “bandaid on a gunshot wound.”
“Is it some type of relief? Sure, but is it actual solving the crisis? No,” he said.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union representing some 21,000 for-hire vehicle operators in the city, put forth a more expansive plan [4] in 2020 which would make the city act as a guarantor, or “government backstop” to secure lower principals and monthly payments, but TLC commissioner Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk has balked at that proposal saying it could tie the city to a lot of debt if drivers default.
The protesters have gained support from the New York Congressional Delegation, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and actor and former Obama staffer Kal Pen, who visited the protesters over the weekend. 

Actor and former Obama staffer Kal Penn showed his support for the protesters.Photo by Adrian Childress

Fromberg, of TLC, deferred a request for comment to recent statements by Mayor de Blasio, where hizzoner said the city could not “make everyone whole” and punted to other levels of government.
“Any way we can make progress for people and reduce the immediate burden, so they have a chance to get out of the situation, is something we should be doing… I want to get the maximum help we can, but the help we need is beyond the city,” he told Errol Louis on NY1 on Monday. “I can’t say the City of New York can make everyone whole, we just don’t have that ability, but we can help people.”
Aliyu and his fellow protesters not ready to throw in the towel, even as the city continues to shoot down their demands.
“We are not going to give up, as long as it’s going to take, we are going for it, because we have nothing else left,” the 49-year-old Bronxite said. “My dream started in 2004, earning a medallion and now the American Dream has just been robbed, robbed, robbed away from me. I love the job, this is what I want to do.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/19/nyregion/taxi-medallions.html
[2] https://www.amny.com/transit/tlc-65-million-grant-vote-taxi-debt/
[3] https://www1.nyc.gov/site/tlc/about/taxi-medallion-owner-relief-program.page
[4] https://www.nytwa.org/debt-forgiveness

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