Taxi driver Matt Sutter waits at the lower level of the short term parking garage at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to pick up a fare on Jan. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Every Tuesday at around 3 p.m., taxi drivers start filing into San Francisco City Hall. On a recent week in February, Matt Sutter is the first one to arrive.
Sutter is wearing track pants and a large, faded, gray T-shirt with a Chevy logo. He’s a core member of the Tuesday crew.
This group of about 10 drivers has been coming to City Hall weekly for almost three years to speak in the public comment section of the Board of Supervisors meeting. They have one mission: to get the city to buy back their $250,000 taxi medallions.
The city started selling medallions to drivers back in 2010, around the same time as the appearance of Lyft and Uber. Now drivers are struggling to make minimum wage, let alone pay down the loans on their medallions. They’re being crushed by the debt. Some have even died of stress-related illnesses.
At 4 p.m., the drivers enter City Hall. They walk under the building’s large central dome, past couples taking wedding photographs and up the long flight of stairs. At the top, they peak into the Board of Supervisors room.
It’s packed with people. That’s not good — a busy room means a long agenda, and that means drivers will wait hours for the public comment period.
The drivers finally get their chance to speak around 6:30 p.m. Each driver has just two minutes at the microphone to tell their story. One by one, they approach the podium.
“I hope you make the right decision by giving us back our money,” Sutter tells them. “That’s hard-earned family money.”
Harjeet Gargaria, another driver, says, “I don’t know if it’s because I look different — I look black, brown or whatever — but no one want to help us.”
Namdev Sharma is next. He wears a neatly pressed shirt tucked into a pair of slacks. It’s the outfit he always wears on City Hall days. His English isn’t perfect, and he has a few pages of handwritten notes. He carefully puts them on the lectern. But once he starts, he doesn’t even look at them.
“You must not forget us,” he says. “It is unfair. You must think. You must heed our voice. You putted us to a dying situation. You have power to create destiny of us.”
It’s estimated that it would take the city $160 million to buy back the medallions. New York City is already beginning a debt relief program for its drivers.
So, what could be done here in San Francisco?
First, there’s the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The agency could potentially issue a bond to buy back the medallions. It has had the power to do so since voters approved Proposition A in 2007, but the SFMTA isn’t currently pursuing this route. If it did, it would need approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Another option is for the supervisors to fund a buyback program from the city budget.
Supervisor Dean Preston says something needs to be done.
“I think the city definitely owes a debt to the cab drivers who played by the rules for years, and then find themselves in financial dire straits through no fault of their own," Preston said.
Preston isn’t the first supervisor to speak up. For the last two years, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer has argued that the whole medallion system is broken.
At a public meeting last June, Fewer said, “I personally don’t see any way out except to actually blow up the whole thing and redesign the whole thing over again."
She thinks San Francisco should come up with money to help the drivers out. “I just think the burden these people are living under is incredible,” she said.
Seven supervisors told KQED they support the city looking into debt relief. They include Preston, Fewer, Matt Haney, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, Catherine Stefani and Shamann Walton.
Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Gordon Mar are undecided. Ahsha Safai and Norman Yee did not respond. Neither did Mayor London Breed.
San Francisco mayors have played a significant role in the medallion debt crisis. In 2010, then-mayor Gavin Newsom directed the SFMTA to start selling the medallions. Then, Mayor Ed Lee abdicated responsibility for regulating Uber and Lyft to the state. Now, seven hundred drivers, mostly immigrants of color, are being crushed in an unlevel playing field, and Breed has been silent.
Breed has not responded to repeated requests from KQED for comment on this issue. These requests date back to when she first arrived in office in 2018. For this story, her press office said, “Due to Mayor Breed's busy schedule, she does not have a statement on this matter at this time.”
When the Board of Supervisors meeting is finally over at nearly 7 p.m., it has gotten dark and cold outside. Some of the drivers have long night shifts ahead of them.
Matt Sutter says he doesn’t know if what the drivers said at this particular meeting is going to have an impact, but he says at least they can leave knowing that they went in and tried to do something.
If nothing changes, he says, they’ll be back next week. He asks, “What other option do we have?”