After a two-part New York Times investigation into predatory lending practices for taxi medallions delineated how industry leaders and government agencies participated in, encouraged or ignored risky lending, calls for action sprang forth – sometimes from the very same officials or agencies that had been asleep at the switch.
Various deceptive or exploitative lending practices contributed to the rise and precipitous fall of taxi medallions in New York City. Medallions worth $200,000 in 2002 rose to more than $1 million in 2014, before crashing to less than $200,000. The bubble was inflated by loans made without down payments, requirements that loans had to be paid back in three years or extended with inflated interest rates, and interest-only loans that required borrowers to forfeit legal rights and give up much of their income. Borrowers – typically low-income, immigrant drivers – were left in the lurch when the bubble burst, an event that the taxi industry has long blamed primarily on the rise of app-based ride hail services like Uber and Lyft. While the rise of app-based ride hail did contribute to the now-ailing taxi industry, the revelations in the Times show government officials – including the Taxi and Limousine Commission which acted as a “cheerleader” for medallion sales – ignored the warning signs.
Since Sunday, when the first Times story was published, New York Attorney General Letitia James has announced an inquiry into the business and lending practices that “may have created” the crisis, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a joint probe by the TLC, Department of Finance and Department of Consumer Affairs into the brokers who helped arrange the loans, Sen. Chuck Schumer called for an investigation into the credit unions involved in the lending, and members of the New York City Council and state Legislature, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, have called for hearings and legislation to resolve the issue.
The various proposals raised thus far are unlikely to fully address the damage caused to many medallion owners, some experts say. The Times investigation found that since 2016, more than 950 taxi drivers have filed for bankruptcy, with thousands more still suffering under the crippling loans. This is combined with a string of taxi and other professional drivers who have committed suicide in the past year and a half.
Some of the solutions offered have focused on preventing the kind of reckless lending practices exhibited for taxi medallions. Stringer called on state lawmakers to close a loophole that allows lenders to classify their loans as business deals – as opposed to consumer loans, which have more protections for borrowers. A bill introduced last week by state Sen. Jessica Ramos would also establish a program to assist medallion owners who are unable to obtain financing, refinancing or restructuring of an existing loan through a loan loss reserve. State Sen. James Sanders and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, who chair the state Legislature’s committees on banks, declined to comment.
But classifying loans for medallions as consumer loans might not be appropriate, said Bruce Schaller, a transportation expert and former deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Transportation. “I think the difficult question with the individual drivers is that they are in business, they are planning to make money off of their increase in medallion prices. Should they have the same protections as someone who is taking out a mortgage on a house, who is presumed to be very vulnerable?” he asked. “That may well be the case, but (drivers) are also in a business in a way that the prospective homeowner isn't.”
The TLC told the Times that it is the responsibility of bank examiners to control lending practices, while the state Department of Financial Services said that it supervised some of the banks involved, but often deferred to federal inspectors. “The TLC is gravely concerned that unsound lending practices have hurt taxi drivers and has raised these concerns publicly,” Acting Commissioner Bill Heinzen said in an emailed statement. “Banks and credit unions are regulated by federal agencies that have substantial oversight powers that the TLC does not have. The TLC has taken steps within our regulatory power to help owners and drivers by easing regulatory burdens and working with City Council to limit the number of for-hire vehicles on the road. We have pushed banks to restructure loan balances and payment amounts to reflect actual trip revenue.”
Seth Stein, a spokesman for de Blasio, also mentioned interest in preventing risky lending practices. “We are deeply concerned about predatory lending in the medallion business,” Stein wrote in an email. “While TLC has no direct regulatory oversight over lenders – that is squarely under the purview of federal regulators – we continue to look for every means of helping owners and drivers make ends meet. We’ve discontinued medallion sales, secured a cap on app-based for-hire-vehicles, and we strongly urge federal regulators to do more as well.”
But remedies at the federal level may not be realistic, according to David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, with a speciality in transportation and land use planning. “There doesn't seem to be any appetite for what would be reasonable lending standards. Reasonable standards that would include verifiable collateral or values that were based on something other than made-up dollar amounts,” King said, adding that he doesn’t see those changes being made under the current administration. “The housing bubble of 11 years ago, I think that was a sufficiently national concern that has inspired some movement from Washington. Whereas I think something like an asset bubble in New York, just like an asset bubble in one region, isn't going to be enough to spur federal legislation.”
Schaller said that while lending regulation fixes could be beneficial for preventing this kind of crisis in other industries, there’s action that can be taken now by the city to alleviate some pain. “The real question is, if the city now decides that they were part of the fraud, then they should refund the money,” he said. “It's one thing to close a loophole, it's another thing to decide that you need to make restitution.”
City Councilman Mark Levine, who has been working on legislation along those lines for nearly a year, agreed that the city needs to take responsibility. “There has been a lot of attention to the whole industry of lenders and brokers who push these loans on the drivers in ways that were not transparent and really deceived them, and may very well constitute some sort of legal fraud,” he said. “But the city itself also bears responsibility for this, because we were selling medallions with the goal of bringing in revenue to the city and we were promoting them and pumping them up in ways that I think masks the true risks that drivers were taking on. And, most egregiously, we had a round of sales in 2014 when it was abundantly clear that we were headed for a price drop, because by that point app-based competitors had emerged and there were other challenges.”
Levine’s vision for immediately helping those drivers still suffering under unsustainable loans would involve the city acquiring the loans from lenders who either cannot or will not be flexible with borrowers, and then forgiving the debts. Though the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, the idea is to partially finance the buy-back by placing a surcharge on app-based ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft. Levine’s office is still working on confirming that the City Council would have the authority to levy that kind of surcharge. If it doesn’t, they would encourage that action be taken in Albany.
But, as the Times’ investigation into the issue has revealed, much of the damage to drivers and medallion owners has already been done – including to the hundreds of medallion owners who have declared bankruptcy. “If someone paid $800,000 for a medallion loan and paid part of that off, and has had their house repossessed, now Mark Levine is saying, ‘well, we'll just refund whatever's left dangling out there,’” Schaller said. “If I were on the losing end of that bargain, I'd say I want my $800,000 back.”
The idea of a buy-back, Levine admitted, is not a perfect solution, but it’s one he said can help the thousands of medallion owners stuck right now. “It would not address that kind of horrible, horrible hardship,” he said, referring to those owners who have forfeited assets and sustained other losses.
If there’s any upside to the stories relayed in the Times about medallion owners financially devastated by bad loans and the failing taxi industry, it may be that it’s a call to action – even if it’s coming too late for some. “It's had a dramatic impact on the interest in the Council about finding solutions,” Levine said of the heavy punch packed by the Times’ investigation. “It gives new impetus to this effort, which is good, because it's complicated, and it's going to require a political push to make it happen. The revelations in this article made that more likely.”
NEXT STORY: New York City’s fight for Airbnb user data