Taxi cab caravan calls on city officials to provide more relief

Drivers ask for debt relief and an extension of loan forbearance

A small group of cab drivers gathered outside San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency headquarters Wednesday afternoon, calling on officials to provide additional support for taxi operators as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

They started at 1 South Van Ness before caravanning in their vehicles to City Hall, and then to the San Francisco Federal Credit Union on Elm Street, the primary financier of the pricey permits — known as medallions — that allow someone to operate a taxicab in San Francisco.

While many small business owners and renters have received some relief or benefited from temporary moratoriums related to their biggest assets during the pandemic, the Credit Union has refused to extend a two-month loan forbearance for taxi medallion holders in spite of urgings from the SFMTA and the Board of Supervisors to do so.

As of June, when the forbearance expired, there were 433 medallion holders who owed money to the Credit Union. Between July and October, there were at least 49 medallion foreclosures.

Barry Taranto, of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, said many drivers are afraid to risk their health while working, especially now that outdoor dining is closed and a stringent stay-at-home order has been renewed, making earning enough money through driving to pay off their loans all but impossible.

He said some people in his organization have even taken on second jobs just to pay the bill.

SFMTA started to sell these permits — known as medallions — for $250,000 in 2010, with the understanding that they would be valid for a lifetime. Hundreds of drivers eager to invest in themselves took out a loan from the San Francisco Credit Union to foot the steep cost.

But since ride-hail services such as Uber and Lyft stormed San Francisco, the right to operate a taxi has steadily plummeted in value, causing drivers to lose business and struggle to make their monthly payments even before the pandemic.

The demand was so low that people stopped buying the permits altogether in 2016.

While The City netted roughly $64 million from the sale of these medallions that helped it survive a recession, drivers themselves didn’t come into the same kind of windfall.

“We’d like to see the Credit Union continue with its forbearance for at least a few months, or work something else out,” Taranto said.

In the meantime, efforts by the SFMTA to ease the burden on purchased medallion holders through subsidies for senior riders and those with limited mobility, changes to airport access and eliminating numerous fees associated with operating a cab, among others, are appreciated, but not yet sufficient, Taranto says.

“The City has gone out of its way to provide personal protective equipment, provide some subsidies and try to promote taxis within the city agencies. The only problem is it’s not enough,” he said.

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