Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.
NEW YORK CITYâOutside the gated entrance to City Hall, aÂ dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of aÂ tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside aÂ line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to aÂ sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with aÂ backdrop of signs that read:Â Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now!Â The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like aÂ soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipatedÂ earnings.
Dorothy LeConte,Â 64, wasnât there that OctoberÂ 4Â night, but she feels the anguish of owing aÂ medallion debt of $558,000Â with monthly payments of $2,000.Â âSometimes, IÂ think about suicide,â she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine.Â âAnd then, when IÂ come back, IÂ think about my children, and IÂ turn around and say,Â âDorothy, donât.ââ She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents aÂ person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers.Â âThis is worse than if aÂ man left me pregnant in the streetâŠ What the city did to us, and they donâtÂ care.â
LeConteâs predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.
Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximatelyÂ 21,000Â for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up aÂ 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing OctoberÂ 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on aÂ budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasioâs Democracy NYC Initiative as aÂ communications director from DecemberÂ 2020Â to JanuaryÂ 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to aÂ JanuaryÂ 2020Â reportÂ publishedÂ by the Taxi Medallion TaskÂ Force.
Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the cityâs 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.
After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayorâs plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.
âFirst of all, the $65Â million, just the $20,000Â grant wonât even cover that many people,â according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for aÂ living and those who may beÂ retired.Â
âIf you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyoneâs going to get $20,000Â as aÂ cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000Â to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,â she adds.Â âBut now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000Â because thereâs aÂ hardship requirement. If youâre out driving, youâre not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much youâreÂ struggling.â
The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the cityâs comptrollerâs office that is backed by New York Cityâs entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the cityâs proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.
The cityÂ saysÂ that more thanÂ 1,000Â people have signed up for its proposal.Â âIt literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,â says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for cityâs proposal means, aÂ spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded thatÂ â1,000Â medallion owners have applied to the program.â The spokesperson also said the city is working with aÂ âdozen lenders.âÂ According toÂ the city,Â 102Â drivers have received concrete debtÂ relief.
New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal WilhiteÂ characterizedÂ asÂ âpatently falseâ the cityâs claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG andÂ preventedÂ from testifying at aÂ TLC hearing.)
One person who wonât be taking the cityâs offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasnât venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver whoâd happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue.
Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.
A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.
âIâm raising two Black kids,â she says.Â âIâm out from four oâclock in the morning, and Iâm coming home the next morning at three oâclock. IÂ donât want my sons to be in the street. IÂ decided to put them in aÂ boarding school. This is the AmericanÂ dream.â
But it was more than aÂ mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000Â aÂ year to aÂ boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.
âMyÂ 14Â year old didnât have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,â she adds.Â âThatâs what IÂ use my moneyÂ for.â
To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.
The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giulianiâs tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.
To drive aÂ cab today,Â âyou need $45,000Â to $50,000. [If] you donât have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,â says LeConte. Thatâs excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become aÂ driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year,Â 4,500Â taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at aÂ cost of $135Â million,Â accordingÂ toÂ Crainâs New York.
Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times sheâs come to the aid of the cityâs residents and visitors, from SeptemberÂ 11Â to theÂ 2003Â blackout.Â âWhen IÂ say we build the city, weÂ do.â
She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.
âPeople come for the first time to New York. Theyâre so happy to grab aÂ camera,â she says, and take aÂ photo of aÂ yellow taxi.Â âI am in theÂ movies.â
âIâm always there. In everything, I help the city.â
According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.
âAnother time, another woman, aÂ man was beating her up. IÂ was right in the middle of the street. IÂ just rolled down the window. IÂ said,Â âJump in.â She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and IÂ flew withÂ her.â
LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.
âThis is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,â she reasoned with her brother.
City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uberâs debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldnât service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasnât English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.
âI donât think IÂ could concoct aÂ more predatory scheme if IÂ tried,â Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law Schoolâs clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection,Â toldÂ The New York Times.Â âThis was modern-day indenturedÂ servitude.â
Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.
âWe estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,â says Desai from the NYTWA.
LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the earlyÂ 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers.Â âYou open theÂ taxi news, and you find people advertisingâ to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains.Â âSome people borrowed againstÂ it.â
âI did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because IÂ know aÂ government is there to protect the people,â she says.Â âI donât think the government is there to sell usÂ out.â
Without the cityâs protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion afterÂ 2015Â can no longer serve as collateral, she says,Â âyou will be the collateral. If they canât find anything on you, theyâll probably take you to aÂ barber shop, theyâll shave your hair. If you have long hair, theyâll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, theyâll take it away fromÂ you.â
She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in todayâs dollars.
âYou remember that story?â she asks me.Â âThe government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lostÂ everything.â
âThe whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,â she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New Yorkâs streets with app-based drivers.
The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose hasÂ attributedÂ the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called theÂ âquiet conditions,â to theÂ âskill with which capital cloaks itsÂ crimes.â
The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.
âI need the day off. I need to stay home. Iâm 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I canât get up, pain in my back.â
The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But itâs also overtaken her mind.
The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000Â has deprived her of the balm of aÂ good nightâs sleep.Â âI never get aÂ good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because Iâm dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with myÂ dignity?â
About her plight, she says,Â âitâs not because Iâm sick. Itâs not because of an accident that Iâm paralyzed. [Itâs] because of the government that IÂ trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee theÂ loan.â
About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.