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

Lobbying the North Carolina General Assembly to legislate against discriminatory practices against low-income tenants

Fillette discusses the widespread lack of support for welfare rights that legal advocates faced in the mid-1970s. To illustrate his point, he describes in detail the resistance of the North Carolina General Assembly towards adopting legislation that would combat discrimination against low-income tenants. After several unsuccessful attempts to do so in the courts, Fillette describes the process by which they lobbied to introduce a bill that "implied warranty of habitability and outlaw retaliatory evacuations." Initially defeated in 1975, the bill was eventually accepted in 1977 with some creative political maneuvering on the part of Legal Aid lobbyists.

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

You're, of course, describing considerable hostility to the notion of welfare rights across the time you're working with this issue. Thinking broadly about the years you worked with this issue and beyond, how would you describe the level of popular and political support for the idea of welfare rights and any changes in that level of support?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, within North Carolina, there was just virtually never any visible support for welfare recipients in any way that I ever saw. I mean, welfare was just generally unpopular and poor people were generally unpopular. I never quite realized the level of that hostility until I became an amateur lobbyist and went to the General Assembly to try to change all of those common law rules and negative rules about tenants that I was describing for you.
SARAH THUESEN:
Tell me a little bit about that experience lobbying on behalf of low-income tenants.
TED FILLETTE:
Well, I still remember my first meeting with a very progressive Democratic representative in Mecklenburg County who had been one of the leaders in the women's political caucus and was a political science professor out at UNC-Charlotte. I told her about these rules, about the common law rule that entitled tenants to no repairs and the quick procedure for evicting people and how impossible it was to ever have a new trial and get it in front of a judge and so forth. I told her we wanted to try to get a bill that would give some minimum protections for tenants' rights and she said, "They won't vote for that." I said, "What do you mean?" She says, "Most of the people in the General Assembly are landlords and they're not going to tell you why they're going to vote against it, but that's the reason. You have no chance. You shouldn't even bother." That was 1975.
SARAH THUESEN:
Who was that?
TED FILLETTE:
That was Louise Brennan. Well, given how bad things were in the courts and we had tried three different times to get the court of appeals to change the caveat emptor rule, that is amend the common law and adopt the modern day doctrine of the implied covenant of habitability or implied warranty of habitability, as they tend to call it, which every other appellate court in the country had accepted in the 1970s, but North Carolina rejected it three times. After the third time, one of the judges said, "And by the way, this is a matter for the legislature." So finally we decided even though it might be difficult to deal with the legislature, we weren't getting anywhere with the courts. So, in 1975, we tried to get a bill that would create this implied warranty of habitability and outlaw retaliatory evictions. The bill's sponsor for us in the House was Wade Smith, a lawyer from Raleigh. Wade Smith was a very impressive guy. He had been a star athlete at UNC. He was very popular and the very idea that he was willing to carry this flag terrified the landlords' lobby for the Realtors' Association. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
SARAH THUESEN:
What do you think inspired Wade Smith to take up such an unpopular issue?
TED FILLETTE:
He was just a good person and the rules were so grossly unfair that I think it just—he found it unconscionable that tenants could be required to pay the rent and have completely unsafe and unhealthy dwellings and not be able to do anything about it, and the one attempt people could make to do something about it, through the city inspectors, could be completely undercut by retaliatory evictions. So he was willing to try that and we came very close in 1975. I think we got it passed on the first reading and then it was defeated in the second reading, but it was very close. The following year, I came back again and I decided I was going to just work full-time on it for the whole session, if it took four months. I just moved to Raleigh and I worked on it for four days a week. Wade Smith had dropped out of the legislature and this time we convinced Henry Frye to be the sponsor. Now he was one of only three African-Americans in the House out of a hundred and twenty, but the good thing about Henry was that he was smart and he was kind and he was fairly well-respected and he had been appointed chairman of the judiciary committee by Carl Stewart, the Speaker of the House. I think he realized that it was very difficult. He knew that two-thirds of the people in the legislature were probably landlords, but he realized that this was probably the single most important thing for African-American families in the state that he could deal with. At that time, there were two other really, really hot issues going on in the General Assembly. One was the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] and people were extremely excited about that. All the women's groups were working hard for it and many of those groups wanted to get the Landlord-Tenant Bill passed, because most of the tenants that were low-income were female. So we would end up getting a lot of support from the political caucuses at the county level. They were already sort of activated around the ERA. The other interesting thing that was going on was the liquor-by-the-drink legislation. Prior to 1977, there had been no right for any restaurants or any retail establishments to sell alcohol. The only way you could get alcohol was to bring it to the restaurant and some of them would mix you a drink. You could bring your own alcohol, but they wouldn't sell you a drink for a bar, because there weren't any allowed in the state. The chambers of commerce were very actively supporting the legislation, and the Restaurant Association was supporting it. Henry Frye and the two other black legislators finally realized that they and some of their allies could make the difference on whether or not liquor-by-the-drink would pass, because they'd have to have about ten or twelve urban votes to pass liquor-by-the-drink. Because the rural legislators were generally very much opposed to it and they were also opposed to the landlord-tenant bill. So the margin of difference for getting the landlord-tenant bill and liquor-by-the-drink was all in the metropolitan areas. So I think Henry and some of his allies finally figured out that they could find a way to support both if people would agree to support both. I think that was the key to getting the bill passed that created the implied warranty of habitability for the first time in 1977. We got it passed on the Senate side by another just incredible quirk of circumstances. The lieutenant governor was Jimmy Green and he hated these tenants' rights bills. He had been the one that stopped it in the House side in 1975 and now he was lieutenant governor and he had Henry Frye's bill bottled up in a committee on the Senate side. But I found a lobbyist for the AARP [American Association of Retired Persons], who was this little old, retired professor from Wake Forest who was seventy-eight years old. I explained to her how important this legislation was for elderly people. I had all of the census data from 1970 and a vast majority of elderly people lived in very low-income substandard housing in the state and none of them had any protection. She went in and saw Jimmy Green by herself and in fifteen minutes, she came out and said, "He's going to get the bill out." I said, "How in the world is he going to get the bill out?" She says, "Well, I had to explain to Mr. Green that if he didn't get the bill out, I was going to have to go on my TV program this Sunday and explain how he didn't care about the housing for any the elderly people in this state." The bill came out of the committee the next day and it passed. It was truly amazing.
SARAH THUESEN:
That was some skillful maneuvering on her part.
TED FILLETTE:
It was brilliant on her part.
SARAH THUESEN:
Do you remember her name?
TED FILLETTE:
I think it was Dr. Elizabeth Welch, I think was her name.