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Astoria Assembly Member Joins Hunger Strike in Support of Taxi Drivers Fighting for ‘Real’ Debt Relief

Taxi drivers and Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani (front, second from left) are on day three of a hunger strike to demand debt relief from city hall (New York Taxi Workers Alliance via Twitter)

Oct. 22, 2021 By Allie Griffin

An Astoria assembly member has joined a hunger strike taking place outside City Hall in support of taxi drivers fighting for debt relief.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani and more than a dozen yellow cab drivers are on day three of a hunger strike they started Wednesday to demand the mayor provide a new — and more aggressive — debt relief plan for the thousands of taxi medallion owners who have crushing loans to pay off.

The hunger strike follows more than a month of taxi drivers holding daily protests outside City Hall.

Each day drivers, including those now on hunger strike, set up camp on a sidewalk outside City Hall holding signs embossed with phrases like “Debt forgiveness now! Let drivers live”, “We served and believed. The city lied and deceived. Don’t let them bury us alive”, and “We invested in NYC. Invest in justice for our families”. Some of the protestors even stay overnight, sleeping in their cars or a rented van, according to Curbed.

The drivers — who face an average debt of $550,000 according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — say the mayor’s current $65 million relief fund, announced in March, is a bail-out for the banks and predatory loan companies rather than real relief for medallion owners.

Mamdani said he was joining the hunger strike in solidarity with taxi drivers — 94 percent of whom are immigrants and predominately South Asian like himself.

“The average driver is over half a million in debt for a taxi medallion they cannot even use to make a living wage,” he said in a statement posted to Twitter Wednesday. “The city can fix this with an affordable and implementable debt relief plan.”

Many drivers, advocates say, were sold the idea that owning a taxi medallion would put them on a path toward achieving the “American dream.” They took out loans from questionable lenders to pay for the expensive medallions — which many say were artificially inflated by industry leaders.

When unregulated apps like Uber and Lyft came into the city, taxi drivers saw business drop and the value of a medallion — to permit a driver to own a yellow cab and be their own boss — plummet. The current value is priced at just over $100,000, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. It fetched more than $1 million in 2013.

More than 950 taxi medallion owners have filed for bankruptcy, according to the New York Times.

Nine drivers have died by suicide over the last few years.

Mamdani said Thursday that he is dedicating the next nine days of his hunger strike to each of the deceased drivers.

“For the next 9 days, I want to dedicate a day to each of the 9 drivers who died by suicide & crushing debt,” he said Thursday. “Today, I remember Alfredo Perez.”

Perez took his own life inside his home in November 2017.

“Today, I think of him & his family,'” Mamdani said. “We will fight so others don’t meet the same fate.”

The taxi drivers say the city’s fund is wholly inadequate in addressing the crushing debt they face.

Under the plan, the city offers struggling medallion owners zero-interest loans of up to $20,000 to use as a down payment to assist in restructuring medallion debt. It also offers drivers as much as $9,000 in no or low-interest loans towards monthly payments.

However, the plan doesn’t reduce drivers’ monthly loan payments which can be as high as $2,000 a month — meaning that average wage drivers could earn less than $8 an hour after payment, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The taxi drivers want the city to sign onto the NYTWA’s plan, which asks the city to guarantee their debt so they are protected against home foreclosures and liens in the event of a foreclosure. They also want their debts restructured to no more than $145,000 with monthly payments of $800.

The daughter of a taxi driver and former Queens council candidate, Jaslin Kaur, has also joined the hunger strike.

“I remember what the taxi medallion crisis did to me and my family – putting us on food stamps and in fear of going hungry,” Kaur said in a statement posted to Twitter. “That’s the reality of thousands of drivers across NYC. And that’s why I’m going on hunger strike with my brothers and sisters.”

The movement has earned the support of several elected officials. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and City Comptroller Scott Stringer stopped by the protest outside City Hall on Thursday to show solidarity with taxi drivers.

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