After it emerged that thousands of taxi drivers had been lured into reckless loans that left them with overwhelming debt, city leaders took steps to keep it from happening again. They have begun enforcement proceedings against brokers who arranged the loans, arrested a debt collector, strengthened oversight and written new rules.
But there is one thing they have not offered: a bailout for the cabbies who are still struggling.
“It’s great to say ‘never again,’ but it’s not enough,” said Mark D. Levine, one of 10 members of the City Council who, along with the city’s comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, have said they support at least a partial bailout of affected drivers. “It’s just incredibly frustrating that all of the response has been about trying to prevent further fraud and abuse going forward without doing anything about the fraud and abuse that has already occurred.”
The tension is expected to increase Monday, when Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to release the results of a 45-day review of the taxi industry he ordered after The New York Times reported on the exploitative loans.
The review — City Hall’s main response to the crisis — calls for more oversight and tighter rules, but it does not raise the idea of a bailout.
The Times’s investigation, which was published in May, found that taxi industry leaders had artificially inflated the price of the permit — called a medallion — that allows drivers to own a cab and made hundreds of millions of dollars by directing drivers into risky loans they could not afford. The price of a medallion soared to more than $1 million in 2014, from $200,000 in 2002, before crashing, leaving thousands with underwater loans, The Times found.
Industry leaders have denied wrongdoing and placed the blame on the city for allowing ride-hailing apps, such as Uber and Lyft, into the market with little regulation.
More than 950 medallion owners have filed for bankruptcy. Thousands more are struggling to survive.
In its review, the city determined that the brokers who usually arranged the medallion sales, as well as the loans, were plagued by conflicts of interest and frequently violated city rules, including by failing to explain loan terms to borrowers, according to a summary obtained by The Times. As a result, the summary says, several brokers could face fines.
The summary recommends that the city require brokers to disclose more information about themselves and their loans; translate documents into 10 languages; publish all future broker violations online; and create a city unit to more closely supervise industry leaders.
But the split over a potential bailout is the biggest dispute among city officials in response to The Times’s investigation.
Asked about a bailout, the mayor’s office noted that the city had already agreed to waive $10 million in fees owed by taxi owners and had started to build a driver assistance center to give financial counseling and mental health services to drivers.
A full bailout would cost billions, the office said. City Hall has estimated that it could cost about $13 billion, although some councilmen say it could be done for less money.
The office also referred to the mayor’s comments in a recent radio interview, in which he said that a lot of people in the city are suffering and that not everybody can be bailed out.
On Sunday, Mr. de Blasio released a statement saying: “This report shines a light on many of the predatory practices of the broker industry and with this new insight, we’ll be able to do even more to help taxi drivers too long taken advantage of by those they trusted for guidance and help. If you’re a cabdriver in New York City, know we’re in your corner and that this is just a start.”
Corey Johnson, the speaker of the Council, declined to comment. He has sponsored legislation to prevent future problems but has not publicly said whether he supports a bailout.
In the weeks since the investigation was published, Attorney General Letitia James of New York has opened an inquiry into the lending practices, and political leaders in Albany and Washington have begun discussions about holding hearings and drafting legislation.
But advocates for cabdrivers said the city has the biggest obligation to respond to the crisis because of its role in causing it.
“Drivers don’t want some city official telling them they’re getting screwed over,” said Bhairavi Desai, the founder of the Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents medallion owners as well as drivers who work for taxi fleets. “They want to know how their poverty is going to end.”
For years, the investigation found, city, state and federal regulators ignored warning signs. The Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city agency that oversees the industry, went even further, choosing to sell medallions and running advertisements claiming that the permits were “better than the stock market” and a path to a “worry-free retirement.”
Some members of the City Council expressed optimism that the mayor and other officials will ultimately support a bailout. “This conversation is really just beginning, and I really hope we’re going to get there,” Councilman Stephen T. Levin said.
But others expressed deep frustration. Several said they were dismayed by City Hall’s estimate for a bailout, which is based on paying $1 million to buy back each of the city’s 13,587 medallions.
Some councilmen, including Ydanis Rodriguez, the transportation committee chairman; Ritchie Torres, the oversight committee head; and Brad Lander, the deputy leader for policy, said a bailout would target only medallions that are owned by individual drivers, not fleets. There are between 4,000 and 6,000 driver-owners, they said.
In addition, the councilmen said, the city would not need to spend $1 million per medallion. (The average borrower owes about $500,000 on a medallion.) Under one proposal, the city would provide about $100,000 per medallion, with the driver keeping a debt of about $200,000 and the lender being pressured to forgive the rest of the loan.
“We don’t have to buy it all back, but we need to do something,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “City Hall needs to work with us to figure this out.”