The New York City government has set aside $65 million of federal stimulus money to fix the debt crisis among taxi drivers after days, weeks, months of yellow cab protests shutting down bridges and highways. Instead of giving money to the drivers in need, it’s bailing out rich lenders instead, including a big hedge fund in Connecticut.
This is meant to be a simple explainer so I will not attempt to understand or make sense of the city’s decision to bail out lenders not drivers. I can only lay out the dramas involved.
Here in New York, you don’t just paint your car yellow and start picking people up off the street. You need a special taxi medallion for your car to be a taxi and pick up hails, and the city limits the number of medallions out there. As you can imagine, with limited supply and strong demand, the value of a medallion could rise. As Uber and Lyft have completely reshaped the taxi landscape here in the city, that value plummeted, and yellow cab drivers are now underwater, struggling to pay off loans on medallions now worth a fraction of what they started as.
Over the past two decades, the city not only watched as these prices skyrocketed, but encouraged it. To put some figures on that, medallion prices shot up 455 percent from 2001 to 2014 (the last city auction for medallions), as the New York Times reported, only to quickly drop again. That meant medallions “went from $200,000 in 2002 to over $1 million in 2014, then crashed to less than $200,000 soon after,” as City and State NY put it.
As The New York Times reported in a series of articles, a group of taxi industry leaders had artificially inflated the price of a medallion to more than $1 million from about $200,000. They channeled immigrant drivers into loans they could not afford, creating a buying spree that drove up the price of the permits, and then extracted hundreds of millions of dollars before the bubble burst.
During the bubble, government officials worsened the problems by exempting the industry from regulations. The city also chose to fill budget gaps by selling medallions and running ads promoting the permits as “better than the stock market.”
The city sold those medallions, profited off of them. Now it’s the drivers who are suffering. As NPR put it in 2018, “cities made millions selling taxi medallions, now drivers are paying the price.”
It’s also the city that helped create drivers’ debt, so its job is easy: forgive the debt. What has the city done? Bailed out the lenders instead.
Let drivers borrow $20,000 to pay their medallion debt, and they can borrow another $9,000 for other monthly payments.
With some drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, it doesn’t accomplish a lot! All it does, basically, is funnel a bunch of money to big lenders without helping drivers.
It’d be hard for me to even think up a plan of debt forgiveness that bails out rich lenders not poor drivers, but that’s exactly what the city is planning. Speaking with news outlet Business of Business, Bhairavi Desai, leader of the profit union New York Taxi Workers Alliance, laid out the way the city is bailing out lenders using the hedge fund Marblegate as an example. Marblegate is based in Greenwich, Connecticut (drivers drove all the way there in protest last year) and is the largest holder of medallion loans, as Business of Business reports.
Here’s how the city bails out lenders not drivers by funneling its relief money right back to them, as Desai explains:
In 2018 [Marblegate] bought about 300 taxi medallions, hedging their bets on the struggling industry; Uber and Lyft (which don’t require medallions) were just flourishing. Since February 2020, Marblegate started to purchase the medallion loans from lenders.
In the proposal that the city just announced, medallion owners can borrow $20,000 from the city at zero interest, but it must be used as leverage to negotiate debt restructuring. So, the city’s plan is to essentially loan owner/drivers $20,000 that they can then turn around and offer to the lender, Marblegate, or banks, or credit unions, with no concessions from the lenders as to what the new balance would be on these loans.
Not only is the city directing its stimulus through the drivers to the lenders, it is doing it with no guarantee that the loans will be meaningfully paid down.
“The city’s plan is not nearly enough to bail out the drivers, who each owe about $500,000 in loans on average,” as the NY Times put it recently.
The De Blasio administration is experiencing a lame duck year, with city elections coming November 2021. Current officials will be looking for work, and it doesn’t look like they want to become cabbies. “Many of them come out of finance,” Desai puts it. “They’re making their plans to go back into finance.” Securing a bailout for a big operation like Marblegate doesn’t look bad on that resume.
What the Taxi Workers Alliance plan entails is for the city to write down the loans to $125,000 and bail out the drivers it has helped send spiraling into debt. The lenders still get paid, but the drivers are in the clear, as Desai explains:
Our proposal has been that the city set up a backstop—if the hedge fund or bank reduced the debt to $125,000, the City of New York would guarantee it, 100% of delinquency. The medallion owners are protected and the banks and hedge fund would be guaranteed $125,000, even if the debt is $300,000 for example.
Marblegate can only collect amounts like $300,000 if people own assets; they’re hedging their bets on enough of the drivers having assets.
Even in the [worst] case scenario, our plan would end up costing the city $75 million over 20 years. Our plan is more fiscally sound and would be life-saving. Their plan costs more and does absolutely nothing, offers no relief.
This crisis has been going on for years, and it is on the back of protests and direct pressure from other parts of the city government. The protests have not stopped (we are in the seventh day of protests from the Taxi Workers Alliance, with some very good looking food being made in solidarity), and the threat of a lawsuit isn’t cleared, either. New York state attorney general Letitia James threatened to sue the city for $810 million last year, but dropped the suit in late February 2021 in favor of supporting the Taxi Workers Alliance plan. It’s possible that the city is not completely off the hook, though as the New York Times currently reports:
The city could still face a lawsuit from the state attorney general, Letitia James, whose office investigated the crisis in response to the Times series and found the city was chiefly responsible. Ms. James announced last year that unless the city bailed out cabdrivers, she would sue the city for $810 million and give it to drivers. Her office did not respond to a request for comment about whether the mayor’s plan answered her findings.
I am still in awe of the city somehow screwing up a clear and straightforward win for one of the most public representations of New York City itself, its yellow cabs and drivers. The time for debt forgiveness is now!