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Immigrant Taxi Owners See Their Wealth Wither In Age Of Uber, Lyft

Samson Adrien’s plan for retirement sounded easy. The 61-year-old immigrant from Haiti said he hoped to sell his taxicab medallion — a city-issued license allowing a vehicle to be used as a taxi — for hundreds of thousands of dollars, say goodbye to a life behind the wheel and move back to his native country.

“I do not have any 401K, I don’t have a pension plan like anybody else because of the taxi,” he said, adding that he aimed to sell his medallion for as much as $350,000. “If I go home to Haiti, where the living standard is way, way lower than the United States, it can take me a long way.”

But that plan hit a massive speed bump.

The popularity of ride-sharing services, like Uber and Lyft, has dramatically hurt the taxi industry’s bottom line, and some experts say that’s affecting immigrants more. In some of Chicago’s immigrant communities, the taxi industry has been a pathway toward the American dream. Countless families have been able to buy homes, put their kids through college and start other businesses through working hard as cab drivers and cab owners.

“In our communities, taxi owners and operators were seen as kind of the role model,” said Furqan Mohammed, a small business attorney of South Asian descent. “If you owned a medallion, you were doing pretty well for yourself, and I think other people in the community looked up to those individuals because they were successful small businesses.”  

Samson Adrien, a 61-year old taxicab owner from Haiti, said he had planned to sell his medallion and move back to his native country to retire. But now that medallion values have plummeted, he says he will need to work as long as his health will allow. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Mohammed said he meets every week with drivers who are struggling financially. Some of the drivers had taken out loans to buy medallions, and others used their medallions as collateral to secure other loans to purchase homes, start business or buy new taxis. Mohammed said some of these drivers are grappling with foreclosures or defaults on these loans.

Mohammed estimated he has advised more than 100 medallion owners and almost all of them are immigrants.

It’s not hard to see why someone could have seen economic opportunity by owning a taxicab medallion. In the years leading up to 2013, medallion prices dramatically increased, reaching a peak of more than $360,000. Last month, however, medallions were selling for as little as $45,000.

Mohammed said this nosedive has left medallion owners underwater on loans they took out to purchase medallions, or other loans that used medallions as collateral.  

“This is the equivalent, in my opinion, of 2,000-plus small businesses that are going under together,” Mohammed said. “If you saw this dispersed throughout Chicago, [if] you saw a bunch of brick-and-mortar stores with windows boarded up, eviction signs noted on the doors, there would be a crisis. The only reason it’s taking some more time for the public to realize what’s happening here … is because these are mobile businesses that you may not notice that there’s maybe 1,000 less cabs on road.”

It's not known yet how this will ultimately affect immigrant communities that have staked their lives on the taxi industry, but some experts worry that the financial impact will be profound.

"What this has done is it actually takes away a cornerstone of wealth for a major part of the working class in immigrant communities," said Saqib Bhatti, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

Bhatti studies how Wall Street and big corporations profit off of communities of color. He said the disruption of the taxi industry is ultimately benefiting wealthy investors in Uber and Lyft at the expense of immigrant cab owners.

"They will lose their ability to be able to tap into this traditional source of wealth in order to get ahead [and] access the proverbial American Dream," Bhatti said.

Taxicab officials have lobbied City Hall for deregulating the industry as a way to even the playing field with ridesharing companies. Lilia Chacon, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said city officials are open to that idea and have offered some help. Last year, the city reduced the tax it imposes on each sale of a medallion by 80 percent to help ease the transfer between owners, she said.

But Chacon said there’s only so much the city can do.

“Transportation companies compete for customers, and ultimately it is the consumer who makes the choice,” she said in a statement, adding that the price of medallions is market-driven and not dictated by the city.

Representatives from Uber and Lyft said the companies have helped create opportunities for tens of thousands of drivers, including immigrants.

But for Adrien, he said the best he can do is to keep waking up early in the morning and getting behind the wheel of his taxi to drive 16-hours a day. He said after spending 27 years driving a taxi, he’d prefer to find another job that pays better, but his options are limited.

“Who’s going to hire a 61-year-old?” he said. “I should be looking for my way out, not for my way in right now.”

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef.

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