taken for a ride

Cap Uber and Lyft Drivers’ Lease Costs, Queens Lawmaker Says

Former Uber driver Abraham Lobe, 60, sits in a Lincoln that’s been parked in a Bedford-Stuyvesant lot for two years.
Former Uber driver Abraham Lobe, 60, sits in a Lincoln that’s been parked in a Bedford-Stuyvesant lot for two years. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Abraham Lobe started driving for Uber in 2014, attracted by the possibility of earning extra money to supplement his work as a minister and the promise of owning a leased car after three years.

His hopes never materialized.

Instead, he said, the car leasing company that came recommended by Uber charged him $500 a week to rent a used Lincoln that had already logged 30,000 miles. Lobe struggled to make ends meet, barely taking home $200 a week.

After three years of driving up to 16 hours a day, he said he had paid $78,000 in full, but American Lease still refused to relinquish the car’s title. He no longer drives for Uber.

“Companies like this one are robbing people. It’s a crime,” said Lobe, 60, of Brooklyn. “They’re doing it in broad daylight and nothing has happened to them, because there’s no legislation, no rules to keep them accountable.”

“Nobody is protecting the public, nobody is protecting the driver. It’s no different from putting a gun to my head and demanding $78,000.”

Lobe is not alone in his story of being saddled with crushing lease payments in order to work for ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

There’s Lamine Bah, who said he paid nearly $90,000 over three years to American Lease to rent and ultimately own a used Toyota Highlander. Abdullah Hasib says he pays $550 weekly to rent a 2017 Nissan Altima to drive for Lyft and Juno.

Bill Aims to Protect Drivers

New legislation to be introduced Wednesday by City Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens) aims to shield drivers of for-hire vehicles — including those working for ride-sharing apps, livery and green cab companies — from lease costs beyond what they can reasonably pay through their income from driving.

The bill would require the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to establish maximum limits for lease payments, just as it did in 2012 for yellow cab drivers. The yellow taxi rule currently limits leases to a total of $42,900 over 156 weeks, or $275 a week.

Moya’s measure would curb rates for a range of scenarios: leasing, renting, leasing to own and conditional purchase of for-hire cars.

“Right now, for-hire drivers are signing contracts; they get locked in to impossible payments,” Moya said. The bill, he says, serves “to make sure that they’re not being cheated and duped into these impossible payments.”

Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens) speaks at a City Hall hearing in January, 2019.
Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens) speaks at a City Hall hearing in January, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

American Lease did not respond to a request for comment. The company bills itself as the largest TLC rental and leasing company in the city, and as an official partner of Uber and Via. Starting costs for a Toyota Camry are $350 a week.

Wayne Ackerman, the chief financial officer for Brooklyn-based rental company Buggy TLC, said that Moya’s proposal could put the rental industry “in jeopardy” and make it difficult for drivers with shaky finances to lease a vehicle.

Of his own business, Ackerman said: “If obviously you can’t make any money at all, we are not going to be here.”

‘The Wild, Wild West’

An estimated 120,000 vehicles are currently licensed to operate for hire in New York City, according to the Taxi & Limousine Commission — about 85,000 of them for ride-sharing apps.

Under city legislation passed last summer and recently extended for another year, the TLC cannot issue any additional licenses. That measure and others aimed to stabilize drivers’ incomes, which had declined with the influx of cars hailed via mobile apps.

Driver advocates say that companies like Uber and Lyft created an industry where many drivers languish in poverty, lured by exaggerations about high earning potential and company partnerships with rental companies.

A driver advertises both Uber and Lyft on his vehicle.
A driver advertises both Uber and Lyft on his vehicle. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“They presented the job itself as a bonanza that could earn you enough to pay these exorbitant lease rates. That’s when it really started,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “It’s been the wild, wild West for these companies for quite some time.”

Desai is calling for the TLC to limit lease payments to roughly $350 a week, including insurance fees. Without a safeguard in place for-hire vehicle drivers, she said, steep lease costs create a vicious cycle in what is already a deeply unstable profession.

“The thing is, predatory lending means drivers not only suffer poverty week to week because so much of their income goes to paying off these fees,” she added. “It also means you’re locked into a long-term debt.”

In a statement, TLC spokesperson Rebecca Harshbarger said the agency “investigating the issue and will determine whether to take action.”

Uber spokesperson Harry Hartfield said that imposing a ceiling on lease payments will not address what he called the “permanent underclass of drivers created by the vehicle cap.”

He added that the TLC “should allow drivers to use their own vehicles.”

Lyft has a program allowing drivers to rent cars at rates that include insurance and routine maintenance costs. These cars can be used for personal reasons and can be returned at any time.

A company spokesperson said that pricing is similar to that of competitors, adding that one of the biggest factors in determining cost was high car insurance fees in New York.

Drivers said that setting limits on payments would give them a chance at life without constant onerous financial burdens.

“Sometimes I have to work six or seven days because I couldn’t make the money,” said Hasib, 27, of Brooklyn, who pays Buggy TLC Rental $459 a week to rent a Nissan and an additional $100 fee for damages for an accident he said he didn’t cause. Buggy’s website advertises its partnership with Uber.

With a limit on such payments, he said, “I could actually save a little more money and I could maybe take a little extra rest for myself.”

Are you or is someone you know a Lyft or Uber driver and paying more than you can afford for the car’s lease? We want to talk to you. Email cchung@thecity.nyc or text/WhatsApp/Signal 718-866-8674.

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