Property Rights

To James Perry, the new executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, equal access to home ownership is the foundation of civil rights.


In the realm of Civil Rights activism, James Perry enjoys that most elusive of outcomes: concrete results.

"Housing discrimination is testable. It's provable. And its actionable," says Perry, who in December became the new executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

By sending volunteer testers -- in the simplest cases, one black applicant and one white applicant -- out to investigate complaints of discriminatory treatment, the Fair Housing Action Center often turns up stark accounts of the different treatment given to black and white homebuyers and renters in the New Orleans area. Black testers tell of being ignored by landlords who had agreed to show them property, of being told an available property had been rented, or of being quoted rental prices and security deposits much higher than those quoted to whites.

In one case, blacks and whites were offered apartments in different parts of the same complex. Amenities included separate swimming pools for blacks and whites, and thermostats that could be controlled in the "white" apartments but were inoperable in apartments rented to blacks.

Renters with children -- another group protected from housing discrimination -- tell even balder stories of being turned down flat by landlords and agents who said they did not allow kids.

In the mid-1990s, FHAC founding director Stacy Seicshnaydre conducted a rental audit of 50 randomly selected properties in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Her volunteers found some form of racial discrimination in 77 percent of the cases. Discrimination against renters with children was uncovered in more than 40 percent of the encounters testers had with landlords.

Accounts from FHAC's volunteer testers have served as evidence in more than two dozen cases of housing discrimination that the group has helped bring to court. Under the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability or familial status (whether or not the family has children) when it comes to renting or selling housing. Beyond court cases, FHAC has prompted the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to investigate hundreds of cases of housing discrimination and to assess fines or monitor outcomes.

Since 1995, the group has investigated more than 800 total complaints and resolved them to the tune of more than $1 million in damages and fines for complainants. One of its cases, Lincoln v. Case (2002), upheld the awarding of sizable punitive damages as a deterrent to housing discrimination. In doing so, the case gave an incentive to lawyers, who can have their costs paid out of awards.

Beyond that, says Seicshnaydre, Lincoln made an important point about housing discrimination: it's expensive. "There might be a lot of landlords who would take the risk of discriminating and getting caught if they knew they'd only have to pay a small amount of damages," says Seicshnaydre, who now serves as the director of the Civil Litigation Clinic at Tulane University Law School. "If the cost of discrimination is low, it will continue. Therefore the cost of discrimination must be high enough to make it stop."

THE FAIR HOUSING ACT passed with the urging of then-president Lyndon Johnson in 1968, shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.. Unlike the Midwest and the Northeast, however, the South never developed fair housing organizations to educate the public about housing discrimination and to aid its victims. Twenty-five years later, HUD sought to correct that problem by providing funds that fair housing groups could use to spin off new groups.

Under that program, the National Fair Housing Alliance launched the Greater New Orleans FHAC as an independent, locally based nonprofit. Last year, the same group established the framework for the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, organized a local board of directors and cut the group loose. Both GNO FHAC and Gulf Coast Fair Housing continue to be members of the National Fair Housing Alliance, which is based in Washington, D.C.

Last year, Perry became the first executive director of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center in Gulfport, Miss. "Everyone said, ŒThere is no discrimination here, so you're going to open up and you're not going to have any business.'" Perry recalls. He conducted a rental audit based on the same model Seicshnaydre used. The intent was to determine the nature and extent of rental discrimination on the basis of race and familial status.

The results were just as staggering as those Seicshnaydre had found in New Orleans a decade before. In last year's audit, 71 percent of those testing for racial discrimination were denied equal access to housing based on their race. Of those testing for discrimination against people with children, 69 percent were discouraged or turned away while their childless counterparts were not.

"I didn't expect the numbers to be that high for either one, really, until the figures were tabulated," says Perry, who grew up in eastern New Orleans.

When the Mississippi results were published, the phones at Gulf Coast Fair Housing started ringing off the hook. Many callers reported discriminatory encounters that they'd been mulling over for years -- often too long ago to be addressed now with legal action. But others called with current problems that testers were able to verify. By the time Perry left in December, 14 complaints had been referred to HUD and 2 cases had been sent to cooperating attorneys for legal action.

"It's hard for people to know when they've been discriminated against," says Perry. He tells the story of one of his testers, a black male, who actually wanted to rent the Gulf Coast apartment he went to inquire about. The manager of the complex, also a black male, told the man that the rent would be $575 and that a deposit of one month's rent would be required. When a white male went to inquire about the same apartment on the same day, he was offered a much lower rent as well as a $200 discount as a "move-in special." No deposit was requested. Even the tester was fooled until he heard his white counterpart's story.

Now back in New Orleans, Perry has stepped into a position at the nexus of several battles that go to the heart of who will have access to housing in New Orleans. In December, FHAC and HUD successfully held the Housing Authority of New Orleans to the terms of a conciliation agreement over the number of public housing units in the "River Garden" development on the site of the former St. Thomas housing project. (Representatives of HANO and HUD could not be reached for comment by press time.) Those negotiations were discouraging, says FHAC general counsel Lucia Blacksher, because the St. Thomas residents were scattered by the time the numbers were worked out. In the end, only 10 St. Thomas families returned to the site of their former community.

Perry says his group learned from the experience. If the Iberville housing development comes up for redevelopment, as he believes that it will, FHAC will move to make contractual agreements about where and how residents will be accommodated. These agreements, he says, should be part of negotiations right from the start. "The trick is now to make sure that the folks living there are adequately protected," Perry says.

Then there are the moratoria. Long before Perry arrived as the group's executive director, FHAC joined the fight against the temporary moratorium on multifamily housing units in Algiers and the French Quarter proposed by District C Council member Jackie Clarkson. Leading the opposition is the Affordable Housing Alliance, a coalition of housing advocates and organizations that claims the measure discriminates against poor people. The former director of FHAC, Jeffrey May, is one of the alliance's leaders, and FHAC is an official member of the coalition.

Clarkson says that the moratorium she's proposing is aimed at slumlords, not at affordable housing. The moratorium, she says, imposes a design review process on multifamily developments to make sure that they have good construction, lack of density and appropriate land use. ³Putting children on a postage stamp lot next to a bar on a busy street is not good affordable housing and does not help the poor,² she says.

The proposed moratorium was put in limbo in November after the council refused to support it. But council-watchers say that the move had more to do with council dynamics than it did with any desire to preserve affordable housing inside the city. Two other council districts, Districts D and E, already have similar moratoria in place, and two of those moratoria in District E were extended by Council vote last Thursday. Their legality has been questioned by city attorney Sherry Landry on the basis of the fact that they limit housing opportunities for the disabled.

Landry said that limits on multifamily housing were most likely to affect poor people who can't afford to own or rent single-family homes. If that aspect of the law had the effect of discriminating against minorities, it could be challenged under the Fair Housing Act, Landry suggested in an opinion issued last July.

The Alliance for Affordable Housing met with Clarkson in the fall and is pressing for another meeting. (Clarkson is noncommittal on whether or not she'll meet with the group again.) FHAC, meanwhile, is moving forward on the legal front. Already the organization is monitoring and investigating several situations that may provide a legal challenge to the existing restrictions on multifamily arrangements. FHAC has defeated City Hall in the courts before, challenging Jefferson Parish's opposition to a group home for Alzheimer's patients -- and winning -- in Groome Resources v. Jefferson Parish (2000). Perry knows that the right case could sweep away the current bans on multifamily units, especially if those bans were found to violate a plaintiff's civil rights.

FHAC IS NEITHER AND AFFORDABLE housing organization nor a political organization. Its bread and butter, Perry stresses, is investigating individual complaints of discrimination, one case at a time. But in New Orleans, where 37 percent of those living below the poverty line are African American, affordable housing is arguably a civil rights issue. And because 99 percent of the city's public housing residents -- and the majority of those holding Section 8 vouchers -- are African American, policy matters that affect those residents are seen by many as civil rights matters, too.

Even predatory lending, whose practitioners target elderly homeowners across the country, takes on a different face in New Orleans, where the largest number of victims are African-American homeowners. That burns Perry, who points out that the ability to own property has been the key to amassing wealth in America since the nation began. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave blacks the right to own property, Perry says, but that right wasn't enforced until the Supreme Court affirmed it in Jones v. Mayer in 1968.

"In theory, African Americans didn't have the same access to home ownership that white people had until 1968, until this Jones case," says Perry, who is also a third-year law student at Loyola University. "So in '68 we get this opportunity, we are able to transfer property, and then you have this right to fair housing under the act of Congress. Then in 2004 you have these predatory lenders taking those opportunities back by using this predatory lending tool. So an opportunity that African Americans missed out on for hundreds of years, they'll miss out on again."

FHAC is currently running an ad campaign warning homeowners about predatory lenders. In the year and a half since the campaign began, FHAC has received about four or five calls a week from elderly homeowners. Most of those callers fear they'll lose their homes because they borrowed against their equity and are now caught up in high interest payments.

PERRY CAME TO HOUSING ACTIVISM after four years as an information manager at the Preservation Resource Center, where he helped people buy and renovate blighted and abandoned homes. Housing discrimination wasn't on his radar until he began offering home buyer training classes at the PRC. One of the groups he asked to present at his training was FHAC, whose director, Jeffrey May, invited him to FHAC's downtown offices for a long conversation about the history of the fair housing movement. Perry was hooked. In July 2003, he applied for the chance to open the new fair housing office in Gulfport. For a year, he kept his job at the PRC and attended night classes at Loyola while running the nascent organization nearly a hundred miles away. After May left FHAC last August, Perry applied for his job. Only in December did he relinquish his post at the PRC.

The group's experience and resources might be useful in other civil rights-related matters, Perry says. Just last week, he suggested that the mayor might make use his volunteer testers to root out other discriminatory practices. "We're offering the mayor our services in testing discrimination in the downtown bars," says Perry, referring to Nagin's plans to send "mystery shoppers" to test the presence of various types of discrimination in the city's businesses.

Education is an essential part of FHAC's mission, Perry says, pointing to the annual two-day Fair Housing Summit the group will hold starting April 15. He also expects to move his organization's headquarters out of its fourth floor quarters on Lafayette Street, perhaps setting up in a storefront where victims of discrimination can visit more easily.

Lucia Blacksher, FHAC's general counsel, says that housing is one area of civil rights in which litigation can bring results. She says she constantly hears statements that indicate a widespread obliviousness to the fact that discrimination in housing is illegal. Just recently, a caller to an apartment complex in St. Bernard was asked on the phone whether she was white or black. That kind of blatant discrimination blows her mind, she says. But it also costs: the case settled with a $15,000 award in punitive damages.

Despite all the talk of affordability and public housing residents, Perry takes pains to point out housing discrimination cuts across all income levels, he says. It can affect someone who's trying to purchase a multimillion home just as much as it can impair a Section 8 voucher holder. "I think a lot of times, people who are victims of discrimination just accept it, that it's a part of life. and that there's nothing they can do about it," Perry says. "Our position is that it's not a part of life, that you can do something about it." &127;

Freelance writer Lili LeGardeur can be contacted at For more information about GNO FHAC, visit the Web site

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