Taxi medallion owners from across the city have been streaming to the Dutch Kills headquarters of the New York Taxi Alliance since Monday, Sept. 19, to file the necessary paperwork that will free them from the crushing debt that caused many of their co-workers to commit suicide in recent years. More than 3,000 are qualified under the Taxi Medallion Relief Program forged by the city, the NYTWA and Marblegate, the lender which owns the most active taxi medallion loans.
The program restructures taxi medallion loans so that they are backed by the city in case of default, have a maximum principal balance of $170,000 and have a maximum interest rate of 7.3%. Currently, the average medallion-owning driver is currently in $500,000 worth of debt, often in predatory lending agreements, and in constant fear of losing their homes if they don’t make their payments.
Augie Tang, 38, came to Dutch Kills to close his loan on Saturday, Sept. 24, after he inherited his father’s medallion and the $530,000 debt that came with it when his father died. Tang became a father himself just three months ago, and now he is free to plan for his child’s future.
Astoria Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani was on hunger strike with Tang for 15 days last November, capping more than a month of protests at City Hall before a preliminary deal was reached.
“After years of struggle from the union and after spending many months alongside them fighting for this, and then last Monday, the deal came to life,” Mamdani told QNS on Sept. 27. “In just a week it has been in existence, it has erased more than $200 million of debt from the backs of thousands of working-class taxi drivers. It is such an exciting moment for us to see this come to life.”
Mamdani’s exuberance was tempered by the memory of those lost since the medallion market crashed in 2014 when a wave of drivers, mostly immigrants and people of color, began taking their own lives across Queens — people like 65-year-old Nicanor, a Romanian immigrant who hung himself in the garage of his Maspeth home in 2018; Flushing resident Yu Mein Chow, 56, who was found floating in the East River with his family claiming crippling debt drove him to suicide, just like Bayside’s Roy Kim, 58, who hanged himself with a belt after finding himself more than $500,000 in debt.
“We will forever remember those whose lives were stolen by this debt crisis and that their struggle and the words that they left us have inspired us over the many years of this fight and pushed us over the finish line last November,” Mamdani said.
He recalled one night at the height of the hunger strike reading the final words of 61-year-old driver Douglas Schifter.
“He was a taxi driver who took his own life and was beloved in the community of taxi drivers,” Mamdani recalled. “In his final words, he spoke about what he hoped his decision would bring to the world and the clarity he hoped it would force people to reckon with about what the system of debt was and how drivers were trapped underneath it.”
There was no way out for Schifter. He ended his life with a shotgun blast as he sat in a rental car parked near City Hall in February 2018.
“While we can never bring those brothers back, those who took their own lives because of this horrific system of debt. Their families should always know that their struggles, their stories, those things are why we are here today lifting the debt off of other drivers’ backs,” Mamdani said. “It was because of what they went through and how they shared their struggle with the world that we are able to ensure that we don’t lose a single additional driver to the same struggle.”
During a rally with cab drivers at City Hall on Sept. 30, officials urged drivers with Marblegate loans to inquire by the program deadline, now extended by a week, to Oct. 7, and encouraged other lenders to participate.
“The taxi industry is comprised of hardworking New Yorkers that have not only built a life for their families, but keep our city moving each and every day,” said Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Today’s announcement is a major win for our medallion owners that have suffered these past few years, and what I hope marks a turning page to better times.”