Thursday, March 3, 2016

Flint, Michigan & the Clinical Experience

My students and I traveled to Flint, Michigan recently. We handle all kind of housing matters and quite a few are simple landlord-tenant civil disputes. Flint had its share the night we came specifically as a result of the ongoing toxic drinking water crisis. 

Our visit was at the invitation of one of the law firm’s handing one of the class actions against the state of Michigan and Governor Rick Snyder for their role in the Flint water crisis. The firm, Pitts McGhee, Palmers Rivers had organized a town hall style meeting to register residents who might fit into the class and to inform them of the status of the case. We were invited to offer legal advice to residents who had residential housing questions related to the contaminated water system. Questions like:

Do I have to still pay my rent?
Can I break my lease?
Can I withhold my rent?
If I paid rent and it included water, do I get reimbursed under the state’s reimbursement law?

There were others but these were the most frequent questions.

And landlords.

Am I liable for the toxic water that is flowing through the pipes to the tenants?
Is there a way to check for lead pipes?
Do you help landlords?

The answer to the last question is usually - no, but that night, we tried to answer everyone’s questions. The crisis in the city calls for some new approaches, some flexibility and empathy. The questions were seemingly endless that night; the tragedy almost surreal.

As I walked up to the event, the auditorium where the event was held was already filled to capacity. People were hanging out the doors it was so packed. A guard was turning residents away. There were as many stuck outside as there were inside. There was some tension once it was clear the event was overflowing into the streets. People were everywhere. They wanted to know what was next.

Our clinic does a lot of community educational outreach but this kind of event was not just outreach and education for the public; it was educational for us. It brought the real world into the law school experience in the most real way. This was a national story being covered by CNN, Time Magazine, the New York Times, Democracy Now, and other media outlets. The students would not get many actual clients (we had a number of follow-up calls to make) out of the experience but they would get a unique clinical experience that is important in their overall development.

There were a few things that were notable:

Most of the attendees were black (Flint is 56 percent African-American but their numbers at the event exceeded that amount) though there were individuals from many racial backgrounds.
The residents of Flint were remarkably calm and respectful. They were also quite appreciative we had even showed up to try to help. 
The residents were still a bit in shock that state officials would let this happen and then fail over and over to fix it.

The importance of this clinical experience could not be overstated considering what the students had observed and experienced that night in Flint. I try everyday to bring the real world into my classroom or take the classroom to the real world. This experience was a gem. Our clinic already plans to create a link on our webpage that will provide resource materials on water issues and housing as a result of the Flint crisis. Lead contamination in water systems is an issue that is not likely going away even though the city of Flint is about to replace its pipes. Other cities will likely have to face the problem of lead in drinking water that arose in Flint.

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