Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Describing conditions faced by low-income tenants in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the mid-1970s

Fillette describes the deplorable conditions low-income tenants faced in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1974, his first full year of employment with the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County. According to Fillette, low-income tenants were subject to laws dating back to the seventeenth century, which decreed that landlords did not have the responsibility to repair property. Fillette outlines in detail the various ramifications this entailed for low-income tenants, emphasizing the substandard conditions they lived in and their susceptibility to eviction.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

In a moment, I want to return to the issues of public housing as well as recent gentrification in several areas of Charlotte, but I thought we might step back a little bit right now and talk about some of your more general work in the area of tenants' rights and welfare rights. It might be helpful if you could sketch for me sort of the general landscape in the mid-70s that you encountered that led to your work in those areas.
Alright, I'll try to sort of describe the landscape in 1974, which was the first full calendar year after I came to Charlotte. The low-income housing in Charlotte was in generally extremely bad shape in the private market. Most of the low-income tenants had week-to-week leases and many of those were oral and not written. A typical lease would be for the tenant to pay fifty dollars a week or seventy-five dollars per week and there would be no provision for any kind of repairs to be done in the lease. If there were written leases at all, they would usually be one page and it would be very perfunctor. It would say what the address was, the amount of the rent, and what time the rent was due, and that's all it said. The law in North Carolina at that point was based upon the common law of England in the seventeenth century, which has been described in legal jurisprudence as under the doctrine of caveat emptor, or "the buyer beware," which means that the tenant was not entitled in common law to have the landlord make any repairs at all. What that meant was that low-income tenants could not force their landlords to do any repairs at all, no matter how serious. The only potential relief that tenants had at that time was to ask for an inspection from a housing inspection department of the city of Charlotte that enforced the housing code. But what that meant in practical terms was that if a tenant requested a housing inspection from the city, the inspector would come out and might find twenty or twenty-five violations of the housing code that would include things such as leaking plumbing, holes in the roof, unsafe wiring, inoperable furnace or dangerous flues. There was actually no requirement that the landlord provide any heating equipment at that time even in the housing code. What that would do is cause the city inspector to send the owner of the property a written complaint and offering the owner the opportunity for a hearing to dispute whether or not those conditions existed. What would happen in about ninety-eight percent of those circumstances is the owner would get in touch with his property manager and the property manager would then send a notice for terminating the lease to the tenant. Under North Carolina law at that time, the week-to-week tenancy could be terminated on two days' notice. So if the lease began on a Monday, the landlord could give the notice on Friday to be effective Sunday night, and then on Monday, they would be considered a holdover tenant. It was very common at that time for landlords to retaliate by evicting tenants that called for housing inspections. So in the same scenario I've described, if the notice was sent out on Friday, the landlord would file an action for summary ejectment in the small claims court on Monday and that might be scheduled for a trial on Friday of that same week. Then when the tenant would go to that trial and I went to many of these in small claims court, the tenant was not entitled to raise as a defense to the summary ejectment that it was in retaliation for having called for the housing inspection. That was not a defense in common law and there was no statutory right to be protected from retaliatory evictions. So it was very well-known in the community that if a housing inspector came into your home and reported the defects to the owner, that inside of a week, you were likely to be faced with an eviction trial. So let me tell you what happened when people had eviction trials. When there was no right to get repairs done, there was no claim for the tenant to make about having paid rent for dangerous and unhealthy houses and there was no defense for retaliatory eviction. So when we had these trials, the tenant would always lose. When the tenants lost, they had a theoretical right to appeal for a new trial in the district court, but there was a procedural requirement in the North Carolina statutes that said if a tenant wanted to appeal a judgment of a magistrate to district court to have a trial in front of a jury or a real judge, that the tenant would have to pay three months' rent in advance to stop the judgment of the magistrate from being carried out or executed by the sheriff. Well, in my entire career of working for Legal Aid, we had never had any client who had enough money to pay three months' rent in advance. We had plenty of clients who were able to pay their next week's rent in advance, or perhaps one month in advance, but none of them had enough money saved. They were living pretty much from check to check, so they could not afford to pay the rent appeal bond to stop the landlord from putting them out while they sought an appeal. Of course, since they didn't have many substantive rights, there was very little reason to need an appeal, but if they had any sort of good claim, they would surely be displaced before any new trial occurred. What happened then is, and this is going back to the original scenario, if the trial was scheduled on Friday and they lost and they could not pay three months' rent in advance, the following Monday, the sheriff and the landlord would be at the house and they would physically remove all of the belongings of the tenant and they would put them out on the street. Usually every Monday and sometimes every day of the week, you would drive through the low-income neighborhoods of the city and you would see all the furniture, the clothes, the food, the appliances, the televisions, everything that belonged to these families, was put out on the street. You had people with pickup trucks who were scavengers that would go through the neighborhoods and pick through the items of the tenants that were put out on the street and take the things that they wanted and just carry them off with impunity, while the tenants usually weren't home to protect them; they were at work and they weren't there to protect them. And they didn't necessarily know when these evictions were going to occur, but usually they would occur within one or two days after they lost in court.
In talking with other folks in Legal Aid work across the region, did you find this to be a similar pattern? North Carolina, how would it rank or compare to other southern states or nationally?
Well, there weren't very many Legal Aid people in the South at that time. There were only three counties in North Carolina that had Legal Aid offices and all of us could talk, we could all meet in this same room. When we would talk, we would realize we all had the same problem with the landlord-tenant law or the complete lack of it. So that was very well-known among our three offices. South Carolina, I knew, had similar laws that were mostly just common law from England. Alabama and Mississippi, I think, were similar. I didn't know much about Georgia and Tennessee. But that was pretty typical in the South.