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Astoria assemblyman protests outside city hall for taxi medallion debt forgiveness

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani protests alongside New York Taxi Workers' Alliance. (Photo courtesy of Kaarthika Thakker.)

Starting last Sunday, dozens of New Yorkers and some Queens elected officials gathered outside of City Hall to demand Mayor Bill de Blasio implement the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA) medallion debt forgiveness plan.

The medallion system is a way of regulating the number of taxi cabs in New York City. The city can sell permits and constrain the supply of taxi cabs. Taxi medallions used to be sold for more than $1 million, now go for as low as $160,000, according to NPR. This drop in value can be credited to the introduction of unregulated companies like Uber and Lyft, which led to debt for many medallion owners.

According to the NYTWA, drivers have large monthly mortgage payments for their medallions.

“For decades, driving a NYC yellow cab and acquiring a medallion guaranteed entry into the middle class for drivers and their families, the majority of whom were immigrants,” the NYTWA statement said. “Today, that is not possible and those with medallions suffer. We have a proposal to solve an economic crisis on the verge of becoming a humanitarian crisis.”

The protesters are advocating for the federal or state government to slowly write off loans of $125,000 over no more than 20 years with a monthly mortgage of $750 (4 percent interest). If after 90 days of loan delinquency, the city can repossess the medallion and submit it for public auction.

The proposal, according to the NYTWA, would cost the city no more than $75 million over the next 20 years, but save thousands from financial ruin. 

Astoria Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani attended the protest that started Sunday, Sept. 19, and has been ongoing every day, at all hours. Mamdani said there have been about 40 to 50 different people each time he has attended, which has been multiple times this week. 

“There are contrasting emotions: one that is a sense of anger at the scale of this criss and how the city has been complicit in that, on the other hand there’s a sense of hope in the future that we could have,” Mamdani said.

Since companies like Lyft and Uber have completely saturated the market, it has left small medallion taxi cab owners with reduced fare prices. This issue has left drivers, mostly immigrants, with unimaginable debt, stress and has even led to death by suicide.

“This is the issue for so many of my constituents,” Mamdani said. “When I ran for office, I met so many taxi drivers in Astoria. And like in so many parts of New York City, they felt like they had not been represented by their officials. They are seen too often by representatives as a constituency that can be ignored and erased. One of the many reasons I ran for office was to change that, to ensure that we brought people who had been consigned to the margins to the center of our political priorities.”

Mamdani has joined protests frequently this summer, even getting arrested as he fought for an extension to the eviction moratorium. However, Mamdani wishes crises like these could be resolved without protests.

“I would rather not be protesting, I would rather not get arrested,” Mamdani said. “But, the sad reality is that it often takes tactics such as these in order to generate any attention from the political class across our city and state. There is nothing I am unwilling to do if those impacted say that this can be the difference-maker.”

Mamdani plans to continue going back to these camp-outs and said if they still feel the city is not listening or taking action, the group may organize a hunger strike. 

“I’ve told the drivers I’m willing to do this with them,” Mamdani said. “We have to, as elected officials, be willing to match what our constituents do in their fight for justice. I really do wish we could resolve this over conversations but oftentimes it ends with actions such as these.”

The city has played a major part in this crisis, according to Mamdani. He said the debt relief plan needs to be implemented in order to change this, and calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio to do so.

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