The MT interview with Krystal Crittendon
Published: July 24, 2013
Crittendon: In terms of legal advice, I can’t tell you what the legal advice is unless the client waives the privilege. I will tell you this — I don’t think that the swaps are illegal. I think it’s bad policy and it’s a bad idea, and so from a legal perspective, if one of the clients — mayor or city council — asks you about something, as the lawyer for the city, your response has to be, “Is it legal or not legal?” Whether they want to take your advice or you offer your advice concerning whether it’s a good idea is irrelevant. That’s one the biggest challenges to being just a lawyer for the city, because there are a number of things that your clients might do that you might think is a bad idea, bad policy, stupid. But if it’s not illegal you can’t prevent it from going forth.
MT: What would be your administration’s top three priorities?
Crittendon: I hope that all the candidates are going to say this, but we’ve got to do something about the crime in this city, and I know that they are, because it’s the biggest thing on people’s radar, the crime. One way we’re going to help fix the crime is to bring some jobs to the residents here, and there are wonderful things taking place in Midtown and downtown, but they have to take place in the neighborhoods as well. The small and the midsized businesses, those are the businesses that are going to employ the Detroiters — the people that work here, the people that are unemployed. Unfortunately, too many of the larger companies that relocate to the city actually bring their workforce with them, so we need to make it a safe city in order for people to feel comfortable enough to want to open their businesses here. And we also need to bring businesses here in order to make it a safe city, so they go hand in hand. Getting the crime under control, the blight, the city — a lot of these neighborhoods look terrible, and I will just say it: one of the main reasons I’m running is because there is so much concentration of the development and beautification in specific areas and people have allowed these other neighborhoods to just deteriorate to a place where it shouldn’t happen. There are people who are working too hard in their neighborhoods — their block clubs, their community groups — in order to maintain what they have, and they’re getting too little help from their city government.
MT: The city has spent a lot of money of a lot of years tearing down abandoned homes and buildings, but blight remains a huge problem.
Crittendon: Well, what has happened is people have done things in this city because they’ve been allowed to do it. You don’t see people walk away from property that they own in other communities like you do here in the city, and they do it because they know they can get away with it. No one is going to make them take care of their properties. The banks have forced a lot of people out of their homes in this city. Not everyone who’s left has left so voluntarily, because they couldn’t stand the city anymore. We were specifically targeted by some of the large banks for the subprime lending. People would’ve qualified for traditional loans — they put them in subprime products. When those payments ballooned, those people were forced out of their homes. We found out a couple of years ago that some of these banks, they’ve never even consummated the foreclosures. So what they did: put the people out of the house, people left, and so now there’s nobody who we can make to take care of the property, because the property owner and the bank are pointing fingers at each other, saying “I’m just the equity owner, I’m not the legal owner.”
And let me just say something else: These properties here are boarded up, the banks aren’t being made to take care of them, they don’t rehab them, they don’t sell them, they just let them sit there. They don’t remediate the blight, the fire hazards. The fire fighters are going to the same structures over and over and over again. They stay there for years. Nobody’s paying taxes on them, and they do it because they know no one will sue them to make them take care of it. There’s a lot of things that take place in this city because people know no one is going to do anything to make them do it. … For a few years, Halloween, I patrolled the Brightmoor area for the three days surrounding, including, Halloween. And one year, they dumped mattresses … everything. One year, the first night we drove through, and there were mattresses and things in the middle of the street. I went back and told the DPW director and he had someone come out that Saturday and clear it up. By Sunday, there were more mattresses. They don’t do that in other communities because they know they can dump with impunity here and if they get caught no one will do anything. So we’ve got to change this whole climate and culture in the city of Detroit where people know that if they do these things in the city, then we’re going to make you pay for it. If you dump, we’re going to make you pay to remediate the blight. If you have a property or you need to sell it, rehab it or tear it down, but you can’t just let it sit there year after year.
MT: How difficult would it be to identify bank-owned properties?
Crittendon: Not difficult at all. You’d just have to do a title search for each one of the properties. But one of the things—
MT: You’d have to go property by property?
Crittendon: Probably property by property.
MT: So that’d be pretty time consuming.
Crittendon: It’d be time consuming but it’d be certainly worth the exercise … it would definitely be a worth the exercise for the city to undertake it.
MT: Because then they could go after those banks?
Crittendon: If you went after a couple of them, you’d be able to pay for the people it took to do the search.
MT: One of the problems is that people are continuing to leave the city. Despite the population of midtown, downtown, there’s still a loss. Now how would you address that?
Crittendon: Right. We need to attract people to the city, we need to maintain those that are here. The main taming — getting crime under control is going to be a big one. People are leaving in the most part because they don’t feel safe and they know that if they need to summon police, fire, EMS through 911, there’s a likelihood that they may not show up. People call 911, they don’t look at their watches just to see when they show up — they look at their calendars. You call on a Tuesday, they show up on a Thursday. I’ve actually had that happen, it was a Wednesday though. They came the next day. So they need to be able to feel safe in their community. They want their families to feel safe. A lot of people, when it’s time to access the school system, they know that they’ll either have to start putting away money so they can put children in private school. The charter school experiment has not been a successful experiment that we’ve conducted with our schoolchildren here in the city of Detroit. What we should have done is pooled all of our resources and made sure we had a strong public school system instead of siphoning off the money and creating this alternative school system. So that’s a big problem. Paying the high taxes, the high insurance rate to insure your home and your vehicles — it’s kind of hard to stash away money to also take care of your child’s education from K through 12. So we’ve got to get some relief with respect to insurance and there has to be a fix to this educational crisis that’s looming here. We’ve got to make it safe. But there are still, having said all that, people who are moving into the city daily. There are people leaving, but there are people moving. We can take care of some of the blight. That will help stabilize the neighborhoods. People feel unsafe living next to or across the street from a burned-out or boarded-up structure. They become havens for illegal activity in many cases, so that needs to come down.
MT: So do you think the way to address the blight is to go after the property owners, especially the banks?
Crittendon: Especially the banks, but not just the banks. We have a lot of slumlords who live elsewhere but have property here that they don’t take care of, and no one’s making them do anything with that either. We had a list a few years ago of the top offenders in Michigan… there are homes that they used to own here, and they’ve moved outside of the state… So that is one way.
MT: Do you think the laws are sufficient to do that or would there have to be changes in the law in order to accomplish that?
Crittendon: There are some tweaks to the law that would make some of this easier, and if we had a supportive legislature, because a lot of it is state law, if we had a supportive legislature in Lansing, it would help with some of the things we need done. I’ll give you an example of some of the things: We’ve been asking in Lansing — and this isn’t related to the property — but this is related to withholding the income taxes from non-residents. We’ve been asking that state law require the employers to withhold, and we’ve not been able to get that done. The anti-residency statute in 2000 caused a lot of flight from the city of Detroit. We used to be able to require public employees to live in the cities where they do their paychecks, right? In 2000, that was changed. It had a big effect — it was probably targeted toward Detroit, because public servants in other communities probably didn’t mind so much having to live in those communities in order to work there. But with the taxes and the school system and all the other problems that we have in the city of Detroit, there was a problem to have to live in the city of Detroit to draw your paycheck from it. If we could get that reversed, that would help. A number of things that would help the city of Detroit retain and attract the population, would be to get some help from the Michigan Legislature.
MT: How about in terms of relationships with the county executives in the surrounding counties? How important do you think it is to work with them on these things?
Crittendon:It is important, especially if we’re going to share resources. It is important to have a good relationship with them, but not just for the sake of having a good relationship. Someone’s got to look out for the city of Detroit. Some of the city’s assets, and the Water Department is an asset, I don’t understand the regionalization of the Water Department. There are people who think their water rates are inflated because of something the city of Detroit is doing. Those communities are marking up the water after we sell it to them, and we’re getting blamed for it. Our water department is the best in the world — we have the best water treatment system in the world, not just in the United States or in Michigan. It is an asset and it would be considered an asset by any other community, and the purpose of regionalization would be to what? How would that benefit the city of Detroit? I don’t understand that. There are people saying maybe we need to bottle the water and make a profit off of it, things of that nature. If that is in fact the case, the city of Detroit should be the person bottling the water, the entity bottling the water.
MT:What question should we have asked that we didn’t ask you?
Crittendon: First of all, I did want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak because as you know, I’m not the media darling of a lot of folks. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not me, it’s my message. I’ve kind of been portrayed as somebody who’s difficult to get along with — I’m not at all. Ask some of the judges and lawyers whom I’ve worked with over the past 19 years. But I am not someone, as I said, who’s going to go along with someone just to get along. … I did what the law required and not what the mayor wanted [in terms of opposing the consent agreement with the state], and that was somehow portrayed as being an act of a renegade or a rogue or something of that nature even though the mayor initially wanted it done. He changed his mind and I didn’t, but I don’t regret that it was done because I did the right thing and I sleep well every night. But people should support the fact that there is someone who’s willing to stand up for what’s right, stand up for the city’s charter.
MT:We had a few fun questions we wanted to ask.
Crittendon: Boxers or briefs?
MT:No. What are some of the songs that are always on your iPod?
Crittendon: In the past year I haven’t turned my radio off — talk radio and gospel stations, so you probably wouldn’t even know any of the songs that I have on my radio, but I will say this: I went to karaoke the other night and I sang “I Will Survive.” I said, “The city of Detroit will survive.” So “I Will Survive” is one of my all-time favorites.
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