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Queens lawmaker joins hunger strike to get mayor to allocate more relief for taxi cab drivers

Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani (far right) with other elected officials and leaders protest outside City Hall on day 6 of NYTWA’s hunger strike. (Photo via Mamdani's Twitter/@ZohranKMamdani)

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), along with Astoria Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, embarked on an indefinite hunger strike to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to put more money toward relief for taxi drivers saddled with hundreds of thousands in medallion debt.

The medallion system was created as a way of regulating the number of taxi cabs on the streets of New York City. The city sells permits and constrains the supply of taxi cabs. Before unregulated companies like Uber and Lyft took over the market, medallions used to be sold for more than $1 million. According to NPR, now the permits go for around $160,000.

NYTWA proposed a debt forgiveness plan that would slowly write off loans of $125,000 over no more than 20 years with a monthly mortgage of $750 or a maximum of 4% interest. If after 90 days of loan delinquency, the city can repossess the medallion and submit it for public auction.

However, after weeks of protesting from NYTWA, de Blasio introduced his own, more conservative plan of only $20,000 for drivers — even though the average debt of a driver today is about $500,000.

In response to de Blasio’s proposal, Mamdani and 12 taxi drivers are refusing to eat until they see a more extensive debt forgiveness plan.

Mamdani hasn’t eaten since last Wednesday, Oct. 20.

“I’m Muslim. I fast for Ramadan and that’s the closest I’ve ever done to something like this. But the difference with that is you break your fast at the end of every day, you know when your fast is going to end,” Mamdani said. “With this, one of the most difficult things about it is that you simply have no idea when the finish line will appear.”

Mamdani along with five other elected officials were arrested for disorderly conduct after blocking the street on Monday, Oct. 25, day 6 of the NYTWA hunger strike.

Since companies like Lyft and Uber completely saturated the market, it has forced small medallion taxi cab drivers, mostly immigrants, to reduce fare prices, leaving them with unimaginable debt and has even led to death by suicide. Mamdani said this is why he feels he is not exaggerating when he says this issue is a matter of life and death.

“Over the last few years, nine drivers have taken their lives because of the devastation of the debt crisis,” Mamdani said. “I’ve spoken to many drivers who have contemplated suicide because of the fact that they are in debt and they simply do not see a way out.”

The City of New York promised to provide $65 million in grants with de Blasio’s plan. A down payment of $20,000 will restructure loan principles and set lower monthly payments to about $1,500 or less per month. 

“The Medallion Relief Program is delivering real debt forgiveness to drivers who deserve economic justice, and more unfavorable loans are being renegotiated every day,” de Blasio said. “There’s more work to do, and the city is ready to continue supporting the industry that has given New Yorkers so much.”

Mamdani said this relief simply does not go far enough. According to Mamdani, the hunger strike will show de Blasio exactly what his plan will result in: the starvation of taxi cab drivers all over New York City. 

“This plan that the city has put forward is a recipe for starvation and, for many, death,” Mamdani said. “It’s very sad that we have to bring those consequences front and center, but that’s what this moment requires.”

Other New York lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have supported the effort to bring relief to these struggling drivers. 

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