Tag: NYTWA

JHISN Newsletter 10/16/2021

Dear friends,

May this Fall weekend find you in good health and spirits. 

JHISN continues to learn and find inspiration from the resilience, diversity, and creativity of local immigrant communities. We hope that by sharing what we learn, this newsletter plays a small role in strengthening solidarity with, and among, immigrants.

In this week’s newsletter, we report on a new stage in the struggle of New York taxi drivers to secure debt relief and justice. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has been demonstrating in front of City Hall around the clock for a month.

Our second story details the ongoing challenges facing residents of flooded basement apartments in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Many immigrants are confronted by extreme housing insecurity and serious health risks.

1. Taxi Workers Battle De Blasio Sellout

The struggle for debt relief by New York’s immigrant yellow cab drivers has entered a dramatic new stage. For almost a month, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has held a continuous, round-the-clock demonstration outside City Hall. NYTWA leader Bhairavi Desai has declared, “We are not leaving the streets until justice is served.”

In our May 15 newsletter, we described how city agencies ripped off thousands of owner-drivers. First, they knowingly created an unsustainable bubble in taxi medallion prices and encouraged predatory loans, leaving drivers drowning in debt when the bubble burst. Then the city let tens of thousands of unregulated, no-medallion Uber and Lyft cars drive off with their fares. The pandemic delivered a final blow. Amid a wave of forced medallion foreclosures, nine drivers died by suicide.

Finding himself under mounting political pressure to correct this ongoing injustice, Mayor De Blasio continues to turn his back on the comprehensive, cost-effective plan for relief put forward by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance—a plan widely supported by local progressive politicians. Instead, he’s made a backroom deal with bankers, hedge fund owners, and unelected bureaucrats at the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission—the same body that enabled the crisis to begin with. The resulting “TLC Taxi Medallion Owner Relief Program” includes some debt relief. But it falls far short of what the drivers are calling for, is structured to serve the lenders, and would cost the city more than the drivers’ plan. It’s being rolled out in a rush, before its own rules are even finalized, to try to stifle criticism.

The average debt of individual medallion owners is $550,000. The TLC plan proposes to give tens of millions to the banks in return for writing down a portion of this debt. As they are well aware, this would still leave unsustainable loan balances of hundreds of thousands of dollars for most owner-drivers. The city has declared that it hopes to get many driver payments down to “only” $1,600 a month. According to the NYTWA, that would keep drivers’ net income well below the minimum wage. More bankruptcies would be inevitable.

The drivers’ plan calls for restructuring all driver loans down to no more than $145,000, with monthly payments at or below $800. If there is a defaulted loan, the city would take over the medallion, and resell it. It would then pay any remaining balance owed to the mortgage holder. Most of the cost of the NYTWA plan would be borne by predatory lenders, not the city. Cost estimates of the taxi drivers’ plan, verified by the city comptroller, are around $3 million a year, compared to the $65 million short-term costs of the De Blasio plan. The NYTWA plan also includes provisions to help older drivers to retire, as well as to give drivers who have lost their medallions through foreclosure a chance to regain them.

NYTWA cab drivers, almost all immigrant workers, are fighting for a real debt relief solution, refusing to be manipulated or diverted by the mayor. They’re out in front of City Hall all day and all night, rain or shine—picketing, chanting, giving interviews, and lighting candles at memorials for their deceased fellow drivers.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Join the NYTWA 24/7 protest at City Hall (Broadway & Murray)—stop by, take pictures & tweet at @NYCMayor and tag @nytwa.
  • Donate to support NYTWA organizing, and sign NYTWA’s online petition
  • Call Mayor De Blasio and tell him that we need real relief for drivers. Click here for a phone number and script. 

2. Living and Dying Underground

They’re often immigrants, they’re often people of mixed-status families. They are the essential workers. They are the lowest wage earners … The most vulnerable New Yorkers live in basement apartments.Annetta Seecharran (executive director, CHHAYA)

The news headlines have faded, but fallout from the torrential rains brought to NYC by Hurricane Ida on September 1 continues to accumulate. While the shadow economy of underground basement apartments in Queens has been invisible to many of us, the devastating effect of Ida’s flooding on basement residents is impossible to ignore. At least 11 people in Queens died during the unprecedented storm, drowned in basement dwellings, trapped in rising floodwaters. Now, uncounted numbers of immigrants, many of them undocumented, find themselves without their belongings, facing potential homelessness and health threats from mold and fungus, as the effects of the storm slowly unfold.

An estimated 100,000-200,000 New Yorkers live in unregulated basement dwellings. Local community groups like Chhaya have fought for years to legalize and bring up to code the vast network of underground rental units in Brooklyn and Queens. But while that struggle for safe, affordable basement housing continues, many low-income people, including tens of thousands of essential workers, don’t have any good options. They are forced—literally—to move underground to survive economically and maintain a roof over their heads. On September 1, that survival strategy turned fatal for some, while thousands more now endure the slow disaster of post-flood life. 

Oscar Gomez and his family are Queens residents whose basement home, belongings, and cash savings were largely destroyed in the flooding and its aftermath. “Swarms of fruit flies, first drawn by the mold growing on the basement walls, have now migrated to the floor above.” More than a month after the disaster, as the family continues to search for an affordable rental, the psychic trauma also lingers: “‘The fear is there, the worry, the uncertainty,’ Gomez said. ‘As soon as it starts raining, you can’t sleep’” (gothamist, 10/13/21).

Excluded from federal storm relief, undocumented New Yorkers hit by the storm learned in late September that they could apply for aid through a $27 million fund set up by the state and the city. In the first week of October, the City Council passed a bill requiring City Hall to create a comprehensive plan addressing the growing threats of climate change. The legislation highlights the vulnerabilities of working-class neighborhoods—like those in Brooklyn and Queens most damaged by Hurricane Ida—and not just the Financial District and coastal Manhattan. 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • For undocumented New Yorkers excluded from FEMA assistance, check out local resources here. Contact Make the Road NY/Jackson Heights for direct assistance, or call the NYS hotline at 1-800-566-7636. Application deadline for NYS disaster relief for undocumented households is November 26. 
  • Both homeowners and tenants can access FEMA assistance and other flood resources on Chhaya’s website here

In solidarity and with collective care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network (JHISN)

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and Twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN. 

 

JHISN Newsletter 05/15/2021

Dear friends,

Greetings to each and all of you, our readers, as we continue to find our way in an unfolding pandemic. For some of us, this is a season of vaccines and anticipated freedoms. And for some of us, especially South Asian immigrant families in Jackson Heights, it is a time of brutal sorrow. The ravages of Covid-19 burn across India, Nepal, and beyond, as global inequalities in wealth and the reality of vaccine apartheid lead to obscene differences in vulnerability and death. Thank you for continuing, with us, to learn and invent what solidarity looks like in this truly global pandemic. 

We turn this week to examine how one predominantly immigrant workforce—taxi cab drivers in NYC, many from South Asia, and many residents and neighbors here in Queens—is fighting for their survival.          

New York’s Immigrant Cab Drivers Seek Justice and Debt Relief  

If you are the owner-driver, you are handcuffed to that wheel and without a real solution you are literally facing a life sentence to debtors’ prison.   —Bhairavi Desai, New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Drowning in debt and devastated by Covid, New York’s yellow cab drivers—almost all immigrants—are carrying out a long-term, militant campaign for relief and accountability from a city that so far has systematically betrayed their interests. United under the banner of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), they are demanding justice and resisting a cynical maneuver by Mayor de Blasio aimed at undermining their struggle.

From 2002-2014, the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission—packed with Guiliani and Bloomberg cronies—oversaw a massive, artificially-created bubble in the price of taxi medallions (the permits required to operate yellow cabs). Bankers and brokers connected to city officials grew rich bidding up medallion prices—in some cases pushing their price from around $200,000 to over a million dollars. Drivers were “knowingly misled” by the City; encouraged to take out predatory loans as a supposedly unbeatable investment in their future. The Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations took advantage of the bubble to harvest hundreds of millions of dollars from sales of taxi medallions and by collecting taxes on private sales. They used this money to balance their budgets and fund favored projects.

But when the bubble burst, drivers were left with impossible levels of debt. At one point, medallion prices dropped to less than $150,000. Today a medallion once again sells for about $200,000; meanwhile, the average driver owes banks and finance companies more than $500,000. Almost a thousand drivers have gone bankrupt; several have died by suicide.

Even as yellow cab drivers reeled from this personal and financial disaster, the City allowed Uber and Lyft to flood the city with tens of thousands of “ride-hailing” cars—yellow cab competitors, who weren’t even required to buy a medallion. This was a body blow to the yellow cab business, which continues to be tightly regulated. In 2018, the City government finally put some caps on the number of so-called “app” cars. But tremendous damage had already been done, once again, to the livelihood of yellow cab drivers.  

As if this wasn’t enough misery, the pandemic caused taxi usage to plummet. And like other essential immigrant workers, many taxi drivers and their families became sick or suffered fatalities.

But the NYTWA has refused to buckle under. Showing resilience and determination, they are using every available tactic to seek justice. They have demonstrated and lobbied and motorcaded to D.C. They shut down the Brooklyn Bridge twice, blocking it with parked cabs. They took over Times Square. They demanded and won the right to be vaccinated as essential workers. As the central focus of their struggle, the NYTWA formulated and is now promoting a comprehensive plan for taxi driver relief, which has been introduced in the New York legislature and taken up by progressives across the state and nationally. It calls for the City to guarantee and help restructure unsustainable loans. It also puts a limit on monthly mortgage payments and gives drivers in foreclosure a chance to regain their medallions. In the meantime, the NYTWA also reached out and united with the “app drivers,” who have their own problems with predatory corporations. In fact, it was an NYTWA lawsuit that won full employee unemployment pay for Uber and Lyft drivers.

Finding himself under sustained political and legal pressure, in early March 2021, Mayor de Blasio suddenly unveiled his own so-called “relief” plan. Denounced as pathetically inadequate by the NYTWA, it proposes using some of the City’s expected federal coronavirus stimulus money to float $20,000 loans for some individual drivers, and $9,000 to help restructure medallion loans. As taxi workers point out, most of this money would go straight into the hands of lenders and debt collection agencies, without making a meaningful dent in drivers’ heavy financial burdens. “The mayor’s plan is a disgraceful betrayal from a city that already has blood on its hands,” said Bhairavi Desai, Director of NYTWA. Desai commented further this week to JHISN: “We remain vigilant about finding a solution that is comprehensive, ever-lasting and, fundamentally, one that is communal. We refuse to be divided and take an individual approach as the city has done. None of us survive if any of us fail.” For his part, De Blasio has so far flatly refused to consider NYTWA’s proposal, even though it would cost less than his plan.

Cab drivers show no signs of being diverted from their goals by the mayor’s maneuver. Dozens of demonstrations have been organized in front of City Hall, at Gracie Mansion and in Albany, since de Blasio’s flawed plan was announced. Politicians, including Jessica Ramos, Chuck Schumer, Scott Stringer, and Letitia James, have come out strongly in favor of the NYTWA relief plan. A class-action suit by drivers, demanding restitution of $2.5 billion, may add to the pressure for a fair settlement by the City. Taxi drivers’ long struggle for justice seems to be catching its second wind.

I really don’t believe this is America. Because I know this country. The justice will be delayed; but I’m confident it won’t be denied. One day. One day the truth will come out, and all these things they did wrong to us because we are immigrants, they will pay for it.  —Mouhamadou Aliyu, Taxi Driver

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Join NYTWA’s protests. The schedule is on their Twitter page: @NYTWA
  • Call 311 and tell Mayor de Blasio that you support the drivers’ plan
  • Make a donation to the NYTWA Community Kitchen Fund to help out with food and protest supplies

In solidarity and with collective care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network (JHISN)

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and Twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN.