Taxi Medallions, Once a Safe Investment, Now Drag Owners Into Debt

Owning a yellow cab has left Issa Isac in deep debt and facing a precarious future.

It was not supposed to turn out this way when Mr. Isac slid behind the wheel in 2005. Soon he was earning $200 a night driving. Three years later, he borrowed $335,000 to buy a New York City taxi medallion, which gave him the right to operate his own cab.

But now Mr. Isac earns half of what he did when he started, as riders have defected to Uber and other competitors. He stopped making the $2,700-a-month loan payment on his medallion in February because he was broke. Last month, it was sold to help pay his debts.

“I see my future crashing down,” said Mr. Isac, 46, an immigrant from Burkina Faso. “I worry every day. Sometimes, I can’t sleep thinking about it. Everything changed overnight.”

Taxi ownership once seemed a guaranteed route to financial security, something that was more tangible and reliable than the stock market since people hailed cabs in good times and bad. Generations of new immigrants toiled away for years to earn enough to buy a coveted medallion. Those who had them took pride in them, and viewed them as their retirement fund.

Uber and other ride-hail apps have upended all that.

Just as homeowners faced ruin when housing markets sank, struggling cab owners in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and other cities are now facing foreclosure and bankruptcy. Many took out loans to pay for taxi medallions, counting on business that has instead nose-dived amid fierce competition. They are falling behind on loan payments, being turned away by lenders and stand to lose not only the medallions that are their livelihoods but also their homes and savings.

Nowhere is the crisis more dire than in New York, which has the largest taxi fleet in the country. Medallions now sell for a fraction of the record $1.3 million price in 2014, and in many cases, are worth far less than what their owners borrowed to buy them. Even if these owners sell their medallions, they still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars — far more than in many other cities where medallion prices were lower to begin with.

In an unprecedented fire sale of medallions, up to 46 of them are expected to go on the auction block later this month as part of bankruptcy proceedings against taxi companies affiliated with an embattled taxi mogul. While the city has previously held auctions to sell a limited number of new medallions — about 1,800 since 1996 — this is believed to be the first auction to dispose of foreclosed medallions, according to city officials.

While the auction has drawn attention to the precipitous fall of the once-mighty taxi industry, it does not reflect the hardship — and heartbreak — of individual owners like Mr. Isac. It is their stories that often get lost in the larger debate over new technology and commutes, and tell of the human cost of the city’s rapidly evolving transportation landscape.

Since 2015, a total of 85 medallions have been sold as part of foreclosure proceedings, according to city records. In August alone, 12 of the 21 medallion sales were part of foreclosures; the prices of all the sales ranged from $150,000 to $450,000 per medallion.

Many more taxi owners say they do not know how much longer they can hold on. Didar Singh, 65, who took out a loan to buy two medallions for a total of $2.6 million in 2013, said he can only afford to pay the interest — $4,816 a month — on the loan. As it is, his taxis do not bring in enough to cover his expenses, forcing him to rely on savings and help from his children.

Sohan Gill once saw his medallion as such a good investment — ”better than a house” — that his wife bought two more in 2001. Now they cannot find enough drivers for the cabs because business is so bad. And Mr. Gill, 63, who had retired from driving, had to go back on the road. “How many more years am I going to drive to take care of these medallions?” he asked.

As recently as three years ago, taxi medallions sold for well over $1 million. Today, some have