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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James Perry, May 25, 2006. Interview U-0251. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

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Oral History Interview with James Perry, May 25, 2006. Interview U-0251. 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.

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[TAPE 1, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Well, I guess we should start at the very beginning. If you would say your name for the recording, and then tell me about—I know you're from New Orleans—tell me about what neighborhood you're from?
JAMES PERRY:
James Perry, and New Orleans East is where I grew up. I actually wasn't born in New Orleans, I was actually born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I moved to New Orleans at about three or four years old. And that whole time, [I] lived in New Orleans East, all the way till I was about seventeen or eighteen, when I started kind of moving into other parts of the city, but I pretty much been in the city since three or four years old.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
I guess your parents got a job in New Orleans, or how did you end up here?
JAMES PERRY:
My mother is from New Orleans, and my father was teaching at the University of New Orleans, and they met there. He got a job outside of New Orleans, so they moved to Carolina, but then he got a job, or decided to come back to the University of New Orleans, around the time that I was three or four years old.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
What did she teach, your mom?
JAMES PERRY:
She was a public school teacher, maybe fourth grade then, and now she's a public school librarian and my father is an English professor.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
What do you remember about New Orleans East? What kind of neighborhood was it?
JAMES PERRY:
I was born in '75, so we're talking like '79 to '91 or '92 that I lived in New Orleans East, and I guess during the first part of the time when I lived in the East it was really this upcoming area, it was really this vibrant, middle-class area, and it did really well. I think a lot of that was because we had the NASA Space Center in the East, where they manufactured parts for space shuttles, and so we had a lot of people who made a lot of money, and so the area did really well. In my teens, that Space Shuttle Center got shut down, and so that began the decline of the area. They had all these big apartment complexes and not enough middle-class people to live in them. And so it started to sag a bit, the economy in the area did, and it still has never really regained its former glory. I think one of the real tests, or one of the things you can look to is the Plaza in New Orleans East, the big mall in the East, and it had been the go-to place. Everybody in the city would go there to go shopping, and there was this really obvious decline just as I graduated from high school, that you could really see very clearly. And it's the same age as the Lakeside mall, which is in Metairie, which still does really well, still has lots of people, but the New Orleans East mall, you couldn't pay people to go shop there.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Were those patterns that you were noticing then when you were in high school or is this stuff looking back that—.
JAMES PERRY:
No, I did notice, you know, probably not for the right reasons—it was because I couldn't buy the tennis shoes that I wanted to buy at the mall that was only a few blocks from my house. Instead I had to find a way to get all the way out to Metairie in order to buy whatever new jeans I wanted to buy. So I noticed then, yeah.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
So would you say that that's the sort of thing that got you thinking about the work you do today?
JAMES PERRY:
You know, actually not at all. I think it's important to point out, because with the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, I think people a lot of times—. Well, first of all, it's almost a bad name, this whole term "fair housing," because people ask me all the time, "Well, what do you do? You know, fair housing, do you renovate houses, do you buy/sell houses, do you teach people how to buy houses?" And what we actually do is we investigate housing discrimination. So it's really civil rights work, and it's just the field of housing in civil rights. It's important to point that out, because the way I got into the work is really through my interest in civil rights. And I think that largely has to do with my parents. It was just a general function of being in the household, you know, from the art in the house to my father's book collection. It was always this issue of the civil rights movement and the role that it played and how important it was, and why we were able to live the lives that we were able to live. So he played organ for Martin Luther King, you know, and if you talk to him he's gonna tell you that story. Any time you get a chance to talk to him. The same way he'll tell it to every single person, obviously, I've heard it a bunch of times. But it's loads of stories like that that have helped me become committed to civil rights.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
What is the story?
JAMES PERRY:
It's not even a story, it's just that once he played—. My grandmother required that everyone learn to play an instrument, and primarily the piano, and so he of course played piano and organ as a result, and one day King came to preach at his church, and he played for King as King preached. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, you know, so King wasn't far away from him.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
The Civil Rights Movement means a lot of things to different people, so I'm curious, you know, just talking about the legacy of your parents, what was it about the movement that they really wanted you to know?
JAMES PERRY:
I don't know that it's so much about the movement, as it is about why the movement happened. My mom told me once about—. I remember as a kid, asking her about segregation, and how it worked and what it was, and she said, "You know, I really only have one main memory of segregation, and it was going to—." I think it was going to, what's the name of this ice-cream place, Dairy Queen! And not being able to order ice cream, because she and her sisters were ready to go in, and her mother was bringing them in, and they said, "We don't serve colored people," you know. And she couldn't buy the ice cream, and she always remembered not being able to get that ice cream. And even now, when we pass Dairy Queens, if we're on a road trip or something, cause we don't have them in the city, she'll bring it up. And that's one of those examples. And so it's not so much the work I guess that the folks did, but it was really the tough experiences that they had because of it. Now on the flip side, talking about the work, one thing that my pops did point out to me when I was young, that I didn't get really until I started working at the Fair Housing Center, was how multi-faceted the Civil Rights Movement was. So for instance, people really focus a lot on King, you know, because he did the "I Have a Dream" speech that was the face for the movement. But at the same time that King was kind of on television changing people's hearts, you had people in the courts litigating and changing the law. And it was this two-pronged approach that really made it successful, that you had to go in and litigate on one hand, and really try to change the actual law, change the mechanism, and at the same time change how people thought about this whole issue of race. Which really I got when I started working here, or when I started working at a fair housing center in Mississippi, because I realized we're that law side, you know. We're the ones who will go in and litigate the civil rights issues surrounding housing. And we'll do some of the heart-changing work that King did too, but our real focus is changing the mechanism so that it works well.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Why were you drawn to the housing part of civil rights work?
JAMES PERRY:
You know, I wasn't. All through high school and through college I was always involved in all kinds of Civil Rights related organizations. In high school, [I was] president of the Black Student Union and the same thing in college. In college, at the University of New Orleans, we had a professor who wrote in to a local paper and said—I'm not even sure why he wrote in, nowadays I have go back and look at my paperwork—but he wrote in and said that African-Americans were less intelligent than Caucasians because they have smaller heads and therefore smaller brains. And so, [Laughter] he was an Economics professor, and so it was just crazy, and he wrote in as though he were an authority and he had this authority because he was a college professor. We ended up having to make this huge stink over it, because it was completely inappropriate. But I guess my point in telling the story is that the interest was really whatever civil rights issue arises. When I got out of school, out of college, I did a lot of job searching and couldn't really find a good job. Our economy was really struggling - this was in '99, 2000.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Right. You wanted to stay in New Orleans.
JAMES PERRY:
Trying to stay in New Orleans, and it really seemed like the only way to stay was to work in the restaurant or tourism industry. And I wasn't interested. And I didn't want to leave. But I got really lucky and found a job working at the Preservation Resource Center, and they have a program called "Operation Comeback." They help people buy and renovate vacant and blighted historic houses. And so it was the best job experience ever. It was incredible, and I worked for a woman named Stephanie Bruno, who I'm still excellent friends with. She taught me an awful lot, and she taught me and the program taught me every aspect of housing in the city of New Orleans. And the general process for buying and renovating and dealing with housing. And so I knew a lot about the whole housing process. So when the guy who ran this center before me called me in and said, "Hey, I want to put your name in the hat to start a fair housing center in Gulfport, Mississippi," I said, "Sure," because I know the housing side, I just don't know the civil rights side. So I took a stab at it, and it worked out. So I just kind of fell into the housing side of things. The civil rights side was just something that was and always will be there.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
One of the things that really interested me about the Preservation Resource Center is that my preconceived notion about historic preservation is that it's about getting the right filigree on the buildings, or the right color, stuff like that. And the work there seemed to be very much about civil rights and economic justice. At least, that's in the mission statement.
JAMES PERRY:
It's interesting you say that. You know, I had a great experience working at the Preservation Resource Center, but historically, civil rights advocates and preservationists in the city of New Orleans butt heads constantly and never get along. Which makes it also much more interesting that the head of a civil rights organization gets his initial training at the Preservation Resource Center.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
So I got that wrong about the Preservation Resource Center.
JAMES PERRY:
Well, I don't know, I think on some issues they get a bum rap, on others they don't, you know? I would say that the focus of the Preservation Resource Center is the built environment. And sometimes the focus on the built environment is to the benefit of everybody and sometimes it's not, is a good way to put it. I would say that they're pretty consistent about focusing on saving the built environment in the city of New Orleans. And so sometimes that puts them at odds with civil rights advocates and sometimes it puts them on the same side. I think that in recent history, it's put them at odds more often than not. Since I've been director here, though, I think we've been on the same side of issues more often than not. But I think they stick to the mission.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Can you give me an example [of] one of those times they were at odds, maybe something when you felt like if you were in charge there, you would have pushed for a different position?
JAMES PERRY:
Let me see. Well, I don't know how specific this is, but one big issue for reviving old historic neighborhoods that the civil rights advocates fear is gentrification. And you hear it come up over and over again and all the time. Just before I came to the Preservation Resource Center, they bought and renovated eight vacant and blighted properties in uptown New Orleans on General Taylor. It was an incredible project. It was the first time that they really got in and got their hands dirty and put their money where their mouth was, renovated these properties, and they're beautiful, they're great. And it had been at that time an African-American neighborhood. And they went out of their way to market to African-Americans, to try to attract African-Americans to the neighborhood, because I think that they knew that if they sold the properties to all white folks then, frankly, they'd get stigmatized, they'd get a bad rap. But they marketed, and they couldn't sell them. They couldn't sell them. And so they ended up selling them all to first-time home buyers, all of whom were [unclear] purchases, but none of them were African-American. Now, I think I have to answer a question.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Can I use the fax machine?
JAMES PERRY:
You know it's not plugged in to fax. It's only the one in that room.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
I can't use that one.
JAMES PERRY:
What's it doing?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
It's just not sending. [Recorder is turned off and then back on.]
ANDY HOROWITZ:
That's okay. So you were saying they were able to sell it to first-time home buyers but they were white.
JAMES PERRY:
Right. And so there was a good bit of backlash that they got because it was perceived that they were coming in and buying up the neighborhood and trying to essentially take over this African-American neighborhood. The issue, though, was I think pretty interesting. You know, I talked to folks to see why didn't African Americans want to buy? And I think that the buying trends were really just very different in the African-American culture in New Orleans at the time and in the white culture in New Orleans at that time, because it was a low-income neighborhood, and African-Americans had lived there for so long and had lived in shotguns for so long, and African-Americans would say to me, "Well, you know, what I really want now is I don't want to live in a shotgun, I want to live in a house that has a two-car garage, and has all these different amenities that you really find in the suburbs." And so it was this suburban style of buying that was deep in most of the African-Americans that I talked to at the time. So it was kind of this thing where maybe there wasn't a good communication about how great these particular properties could be to anyone, African-American or white. And I don't know that I fully blame the Preservation Resouce Center for it, but it was just an example of how people told them, "We're upset because you're taking over our neighborhood and changing our neighborhood, and you're not letting African-Americans in," and they actually went out of their way to.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
You know, it's interesting [in] a case like that, when people talk about cities and people get nostalgic for the great neighborhoods, it's always Storyville, Little Italy in New York, it's some sort of ethnically homogenous neighborhood. And I wonder, since a lot of your work is about housing integration, if you think some of that nostalgia's misplaced?
JAMES PERRY:
I don't know if it's misplaced. Yeah, I don't think that it's misplaced.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Because I'm guessing some of those neighborhoods happened because of discrimination somewhere else, cause people were forced to live in one neighborhood.
JAMES PERRY:
Absolutely. I was talking to a civil rights advocate the other day, actually a few weeks ago, about some aspects of the Louisiana plan, the New Orleans plan, and one of his comments was, "Well, you know, the whole deal with integration, you always fight for it, but you know it's never really going to happen." You know, and we were talking specifically about this idea of dismantling African-American neighborhoods. Because there are loads of folks who would say, "Yeah, we want integration, but don't tear up these historic neighborhoods," and so I think it's one of those things that's just going to always be there, and I would submit that I don't know that anyone really had an honest answer to the issue yet. Working on all the rebuilding issues, the civil rights advocates who I've worked with now nationally and locally, we've kind of been bumping heads on that very issue consistently. We had a meeting not too long ago with Secretary Jackson of HUD, and we were trying to figure out how to approach him about what to do with public housing. Because all the public housing in the city of New Orleans is segregated. It's all ninety-nine percent African-American, with the exception of one complex, which is about ninety-five percent white, right? Well, I shouldn't say that. It's ninety-five percent market rate, it's not ninety-five percent white. But it's the perfect example of segregation in the city of New Orleans. So on one hand we wanted to endorse this idea of a new public housing paradigm that Jackson is for, where you do mixed income housing, where you don't put all the poor people in one area, one part of the city, instead you put some mixed income in there. You put people who are market rate and people who are low income in the similar neighborhoods and you don't put people in housing that's obviously low income housing. And the idea is that low-income folks would get to take advantage of all the things that come with living in a market-rate neighborhood.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Just like the Hope Six projects that I saw.
JAMES PERRY:
Absolutely. And that's on one side, endorsing the Hope Six project idea, but on the other side is this issue that there are all these folks who are calling us all the time from Houston and from Atlanta and saying, "Look, I don't care about all this high-falutin' market rate stuff. I need a place to live today and I want to get back into my city. And X complex is in good enough condition where we could move in today. And if you guys endorse Jackson's idea, then that means that they're gonna tear it down and take five years to build something new that I might not even be able to get into, and it means that I probably won't get back into the city of New Orleans." So it's this really tough situation for us where we know if we argue for them to come back right away, then we are arguing to keep the current segregated system, but they get in to the city, you know? And the flip side is, we argue to go ahead and make these Hope Six projects, then we're arguing for them to stay out of the city. And do they ever come back? And that's a question that we just were not able to come to a perfect resolution about. What we did finally say is well maybe we recommend—this is what we ultimately did recommend—that complexes that are less damaged, we get people in right away, complexes that are more damaged you do the Hope Six project, and it ends up splitting about fifty-fifty. Which is perhaps a good compromise, but you know it still doesn't really fix that issue, and I think that it's always going to be a pitting of those two issues against one another. Another place where it comes up is in education. In Baton Rouge, for instance, [there's] Southern University which is in Baton Rouge, a historically African-American University, and there's Louisiana State University. And then here in the city there's the University of New Orleans, and there's Southern University in New Orleans. And the programs are completely duplicative, well, not completely, they've made some changes to make sure they're not completely duplicative, but pretty duplicative. I mean, LSU has a great law school, and Southern University in Baton Rouge has a great law school. And so, the issue is it costs everyone so much more money and frankly, why have two separate universities? It is segregation and it perpetuates segregation. But when you talk to people from Southern University and particularly alumni from the law school, they say, "Well look, this is our heritage, every black judge in Louisiana went to Southern because that was the only place that you could go to, and it's a sacred thing for us. You know what happens if we say that we integrate these schools: basically LSU gets bigger and you get rid of Southern. You lose this piece of our heritage." And it's really tough to convince folks that you should do anything other than let the system exist as is. If I remember correctly, the direction that educators thought was appropriate was to make the programs less duplicative, so that you end up integrating, but not getting rid of either university. I don't know. I don't have a clear answer there and I think we're a good ways away from having it.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
It's complicated.
JAMES PERRY:
Very. Yeah.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Talking about picking the housing projects that are most destroyed and rebuilding those, do you think Katrina presents an opportunity or is it just a huge problem?
JAMES PERRY:
Well, I do think it presents an opportunity. But the extent to which it is [an] opportunity is really all about the effectiveness of our leadership. If the leadership is ineffective, then the opportunity is gone and it immediately is a problem and will continue to be a problem.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Leadership at what level?
JAMES PERRY:
Well, every level, but when it comes to public housing, I would say unfortunately it's really all about HUD, you know. The Housing Authority of New Orleans runs public housing in the city of New Orleans, and it had problems in the late 90s, big problems, so HUD took over the Housing Authority. It removed our local board of directors and put in place a HUD employee who is a single person who is the board. And so that one person makes all decisions. And so essentially the Housing Authority is HUD, right? So what happens with housing really is HUD's decision. I think that before the storm there were about 7500 people in public housing, there were about 15,000 units, but only about 7500 were occupied, and now, nine months after the storm, there are about 1000 people in public housing in the city of New Orleans. Excuse me. And so I don't know, I just think that in nine months, federal and local agencies like Panel [??] and HUD, who have the resources—. That's the issue for folks whose houses got flooded, they don't have the money to get in and do the work, but these are federal agencies, they have the resources, and for them to only have made decisions about one or two complexes, it's unfortunate. And so to the extent that they have been ineffective in making decisions about public housing over the last nine months, it makes me wonder about how much of an opportunity it is. The other issue is about past Hope Six projects in New Orleans. There are two main developments. One is the Saint Thomas development, which is now called River Gardens, and in that Hope Six development they got the Saint Thomas residents to sign off and agree that they would move out so there could be this new mixed-income housing, and part of the selling point was that about half of the residents would get to come back. About half of the 1500 families in Saint Thomas would get to return and live there, and so they knew that a lot of them wouldn't get to come back, but you know, fifty-fifty chance, right? Might get to make it back to the new development. So we're talking about 750 families would get to come back. So just before the storm, in the River Gardens complex, we think that there were eighty, maybe seventy units or so that were occupied by former Saint Thomas residents. So we're talking seventy or eighty, out of 750 that were supposed to come back. And that's a big deal. I mean, there are a few different points of this Hope Six thing. One is to make cities better. Two is to give these low income families a chance, a better opportunity, a better life because they live in this mixed income environment. And so when you leave out ninety percent of 'em, you completely cheat them out of the opportunity, so what's the point? The other thing is that the other folks who didn't make it in to the new Saint Thomas, for the most part, were relocated into the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans East, which were already low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. So they were even further segregated, rather than better integrated, into the Saint Thomas community. And then there's a second complex, which is the Florida-Desire Hope Six development. And at that development, almost all the residents got to come back. So they didn't bring in hardly any mixed-income people. So once again you miss out on this whole mixed-income idea. So both developments, in my opinion, have failed. So that's the other issue, in terms of whether or not there's opportunity. If opportunity looks the way that Saint Thomas and Florida ended up, then there is no opportunity. It's only to the extent that the people who run those developments and run those projects do it right. If the projects are carried out properly and according the guidelines and they don't deliver, then yeah, it's just more trouble. And that's also one of the things that we took into consideration when going to Jacksonville. Do we want to ask for more Hope Six? I mean, look what it's done so far, it hasn't helped. So the opportunity is there, it's certainly there, but whether or not we take advantage of it plays a big role, and when it comes to public housing, HUD really makes the decisions. I think nowadays we may want to consider pushing HUD to let us have our own local board back at the Housing Authority of New Orleans rather than allowing HUD to continue as the decider.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Because the local boys will make a difference.
JAMES PERRY:
Right. I think so. I hope so. I can't be sure, of course, you never know. Sometimes local can be just as bad, if not worse. But right now we don't have any action, and right now the two biggest developments that are the shining example of what HUD wants don't offer the promise that we thought we would be able to deliver to residents.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
So can you tell me about what the work of the Fair Housing Center is, in the case of Saint Thomas? What were you doing?
JAMES PERRY:
Of course, we investigate housing discrimination, and Saint Thomas is one of those interesting cases I guess because—. There are two types of cases we'll take in. We'll take in cases that are direct, that have direct evidence of discrimination. So we do something called testing, and the way that testing works is, for instance, say an African-American female calls us and she suspects that someone wouldn't rent an apartment to her cause she's African-American. Then we would send two people to that same apartment on the same day within a few minutes of each other to try to rent the same apartment. One would be white, one would be black. They'd have similar income, they'd have similar credit, and in all respects required to qualify for the apartment they'd have the same qualifications. And so in theory they should be told about the same information about the apartments. But if one is told that the apartment is available at $400 a month and the other is told that it's $700 a month, then we probably have evidence of discrimination. So that's one of those really direct cases. The more indirect cases are what we call disparate impact or disparate effect cases. And in those, there may or may not be intent to discriminate, but there's a negative effect on one protected class. So a good example is if a landlord creates a rule that says, "No more than two people per unit in an apartment complex." Well, on its face, that policy's probably non-discriminatory, but for families that have children, if a husband and wife have a child, then automatically they are excluded from that apartment complex. And so the intent may not have been to hurt or harm families that have children, but that's the effect, and so it becomes a fair housing issue as a result. That's the logic that brought us into the Saint Thomas issues. Because when there're negative decisions made about public housing, since about ninety percent of the residents are African-American, then it has a negative impact mostly on African-Americans. So when Saint Thomas, or when Hannah was negotiating or going through the process for who to bring back, and we say the numbers keep declining on how many residents they would allow to come back, residents came to us and complained and said, "The whole reason we signed off was to have this opportunity to live in mixed-income housing, and we're not getting the opportunity now because they keep lessening how many of [us] will get to come back." And so the negative effect, the lack of opportunity to live in a mixed-income environment, was harming mostly African-Americans. So we were able to get in and file a complaint on their behalf. We were able to negotiate to get more Saint Thomas residents guaranteed housing in the complex. Not as many as we would have liked, but we were able to get more. We had a contract, we had an agreement with the Housing Authority that they had to honor about how many folks would come back and about reporting to us about getting folks in and so forth. So after the storm, most of the units that had been reserved or were supposed to be reserved for Saint Thomas residents were being occupied by their employees and by New Orleans city officials. And while we recognize after the storm everybody was hard up for housing, just a few months after the storm people were ready to come back, and this really was the housing that was set aside for these folks to come back. That's one. Two, is I guess I would argue that because these folks were low- income, the housing was even more necessary for them than for a person who has a good job working at the Housing Authority or for the city, because it's more likely that they could afford something in the market, while these folks, it's more likely that they cannot. And it was also pretty egregious because for so long, the only job opportunities [had] really been only in tourism and in restaurant work and hotel work; it was this first great opportunity where people could work in construction and make a lot of money. I mean, jobs are paying a lot more money now than they did before the storm, and there're just loads of jobs. And so part of our logic is if we can just get them in to the city, this might be one of those opportunities where they can move out of the low-income status, just because of the job opportunities.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Do you think it's going to happen?
JAMES PERRY:
Well, there's been an order that came all the way from Secretary Jackson, as I understand it, to move all the employees out of River Gardens. My general counsel has been watching the details more closely than I have, but I think that his order wasn't specific enough, and didn't say, "Here's the deadline by which you must move out." And so a memo that we've gotten from Anno [??], provides, I think, that they're going to move folks out, or they said that people have to be out by September. All their employees and so forth. Which is not nearly soon enough. And so that's the issue that we're ultimately looking at right now: we need that date moved up. We need them out now.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
So the storm didn't necessarily change the bread and butter of what you do here. Is that incorrect?
JAMES PERRY:
No, well, it didn't change the bread and butter of what we do. It did change the geographic area that we cover. We are the only group like ours in the entire state of Louisiana, the only full-service fair housing center that investigates housing discrimination, files lawsuits, and then also does education and outreach and marketing around civil rights fair housing issues. So we had already been saying, well, we need to start doing some work in Baton Rouge, in Shreveport, in other parts of the state of Louisiana. Once the storm hit, people who were familiar with us were all over the state looking for housing, and they knew to call us and say, "We're having a problem in this city or that city. Can you take a look?" And so we didn't turn folks down. We of course looked into every issue that we could. We were of course really short-staffed right after the storm, but we still did what we could to assist folks. So that changed things a good bit in that we really had to become state-wide, overnight, with less staff. And we still have some cases that are from other parts of the state. In addition, you know one of the big cases that we took on after the storm was this internet advertising case where a bunch of websites set up to assist evacuees had housing advertised, and it was housing all over the nation, but they would have discriminatory advertisements. And it's illegal under the Fair Housing Act to discriminate in advertising. So for instance, one of my favorite advertisements from this case is one that said, "Housing available for evacuees"—you know, they give all the information about it—and then they say, "Not to be racist, but no blacks." Right. And it's just so great: "Not to be racist, but no blacks!" And then there's another one that says, "We want to make things more understandable for our younger children, so no black children." They're seeking to share a room, let folks live in their house. But it goes on and on, and there were about thirty pages worth of these discriminatory advertisements. The advertisements are for housing all over the nation, you know, it's in Alabama, in D.C., in California, in Arkansas, and all over. But it's for people from New Orleans, and so we thought it was appropriate to get into it and investigate it, and so it ends up being a national case that affects New Orleanians. So I guess we've had to take on a lot of local stuff, or statewide stuff, and then take on some national cases. And it has some big implications, because there hasn't really been an appellates case yet that's tested whether or not the Fair Housing laws apply to internet websites. And so there's some argument among scholars about whether or not website providers have to abide by the Fair Housing law. So for instance, if the New York Times had allowed someone to run a classified advertisement that said, "Not to be racist, but no blacks," the case law very clearly provides that they would be responsible. The person who placed the advertisement and the New York Times would be responsible. But there's a law called the Communications Decency Act that says that website providers are not responsible when third parties post defamatory or obscene statements on their websites. And so what internet providers will argue is that discriminatory statements are either or both defamatory or obscene, and therefore since a third party posted the advertisement, they're not liable under the Communications Decency Act. So the issue becomes, you know, at the same time, the Fair Housing Act says that it's illegal for anyone to publish any statement of discrimination, period. Right? And so the two seemed in some ways to be at odds with one another. This is also this issue of whether or not a discriminatory statement is an obscene statement and whether or not a discriminatory statement is a defamatory statement. So we're going to find out. And we think we're on good ground there, but it'll be interesting to see. And so the hurricane gets us into having to take on an issue like that.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Switching gears a little bit, you were saying before that if people don't come back, by September, it's going to be too late.
JAMES PERRY:
No, I don't think it's too—.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Or, in the case of Saint Thomas, you were saying it's too long, I guess.
JAMES PERRY:
Yeah. I think that every day that we don't find ways to get people back in we lose another person, you know. They find some other great opportunity or some job opportunity, or they get more frustrated and they make the decision not to come back. And so it's that each day we lose, it's an attrition, we lose folks, a few more people every day, so by the time we get to September who knows how many of our clients that wanted to come back we'll still be able to find or locate.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
So do you have a mental image of New Orleans five years from now?
JAMES PERRY:
Hmm. Well I guess I have two images. I have the image of what it'll look like if advocates like us have our way, and what it'll look like if we don't. And then I guess there are some things that I'm not necessarily aggressively advocating for, but I'm curious about how they are going to turn out, too. So, I think in the perfect world, New Orleans would have—.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
I'm sorry, excuse me. He said that he would have [Recorder is turned off and then back on.]
JAMES PERRY:
Sorry about that.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
No problem.
JAMES PERRY:
I would say in New Orleans, in terms of who was here, comparable to who was here before the storm, even in terms of the numbers of people, it'd be about the same. The difference, hopefully, will be that we'll have some new industry so that people can make more money and we can grow our middle class. One of the biggest problems facing us before was that the restaurant, tourism and hotel industry just didn't pay well enough for us to have a strong middle class. So I'm hopeful that in the course of this process we're going to grow some new industry. The moving industry had already been doing pretty well for us. The issue there was that we weren't getting enough local hires. So I'm just hoping that we can get more local hires and therefore get a bigger, stronger, middle class, and I think that once that happens we become a much stronger city. The key there is that I want to see it happen with—you know I'm not opposed to other people coming in—but I really want to see opportunity for the people who really stuck it out in New Orleans for so long, even though New Orleans struggled so much, and even though times were hard economically in the city. So I really want to see opportunity for New Orleanians. So that's one. I guess the other, the one part that I struggle with in the vision is what will the parts of the city that were most affected by the storm look like? Because even though we're at the point now where the Bring New Orleans Back commission has released its plan, you know, the mayor endorsed some parts, didn't endorse other parts, but it doesn't have any force of law. And you know the governor's plan doesn't really deal with land use, what's going to happen in different areas of the city. I'm curious about what the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are going to look like in five years. You know? We have friends and family who live in both areas, and I talked to some people who say there's no way I'm coming back, and someone please take this house off my hands, tear it down, do whatever, I don't want it, and there are other people like my two aunts and my parents—we've gone in, we've gutted their houses, they've already been rewired, and so they're pretty far along in the process of getting renovated. And so I just don't know what those neighborhoods are gonna look like. I hear stories about developers who are ready to come in and buy up the properties and renovate them. I'm iffy about what's going to happen there.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Do you have hope about what will happen?
JAMES PERRY:
You know, I don't have a good prescription yet, I'm not sure what I think is the best route.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Can you tell me what factors—?
JAMES PERRY:
Yeah. I'm not so big on the whole idea of taking folks' properties. I think that you get really, really messy when you get into the whole issue of eminent domain, and expropriating properties that people own. That's one. Two is that the city of New Orleans has a really sophisticated process for acquiring vacant and blighted properties through eminent domain, through expropriation lawsuits, and the city has never really been able to deal with all the properties that are blighted. There's never been the market to sell those blighted properties, so the issue has never been the acquisition—before the storm, it had never been acquisition of the blighted properties, it was always that there weren't enough people who wanted to buy them. And it's also that the process is cumbersome, but they just weren't enough people who wanted to buy the properties. And so the city wouldn't go in and take them because they didn't want to just sit there and be the entity that owns thirty thousand blighted units, you know. So would a smart mayor want to go in and take all these properties that have been or will be abandoned in New Orleans East or the Lower Nine, you know? I don't know, I'm not sure. The city's hurting for money, you have to actually pay the fair market value of the properties to acquire them, and then once you get them, what do you do with them? It's a really messy thing. Both because of the issue of what the city does with the properties, one, and two, taking properties from folks when they don't want to give them up. It's one thing if people say, "Hey, take the property, I'm done with it," but when people want to keep their properties, it's iffy. So that's one factor for me, but I guess it kind of goes up against this idea of well, if you don't have some organized effort to revitalize these neighborhoods, rather than individual homeowners doing or not doing whatever they feel is appropriate, then it's really hard for these neighborhoods to come back. I think one of the best ways for it to happen is for parcels to be sold to developers and for them to come in and develop whole areas and whole neighborhoods. So those two things really battle one another, and I'm not decided yet about what the best method is. There are also all those kind of politics that get involved about who gets the properties and how much they pay for them, and then last but not least, there's the fundamental safety issue about whether or not the areas are safe to rebuild in.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Is there a disparate impact case in who got [unclear] ?
JAMES PERRY:
Well, I think not. I've given that a lot of thought, and it's because of Lakeview. Because Lakeview is mostly upper-income white folk, and they got flooded, and it's just as bad. It's still more African-Americans than whites, but I think it lessens the ability to bring the case. There may be a case, I won't say that I don't think that there is.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
We've been interviewing some people in the Ninth Ward. We've heard a few people say, you know, that they thought the government blew up the levees. Like they did in '27.
JAMES PERRY:
Yeah. As have I. And there are some lawsuits, as I understand it, that are going forward just about that whole issue. There's also this barge in the Lower Nine that ran into the levees, and there's this conspiracy theory that the barge was purposely placed there, or purposely forced to go through the levee. And, you know, I don't know. I'm completely uncommitted there. Is it possible? Yeah, but I don't know. I don't know yet. I won't say that there's not a disparate impact case, but, you know—.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
I was thinking about it more in terms of people's inherent mistrust.
JAMES PERRY:
Well, right. The mistrust is there. The whole time I've grown up in New Orleans I've heard—. Because you know there's the story of what happened in '27, where it's pretty definite that they were purposefully blown. But I think, is it Betsy or Camille? The levees broke in the Lower Nine then, and—this is all from newspaper stories that I've read—there hasn't been direct evidence that they were purposefully exploded, but you talk to Lower Nine residents who went through those storms, they believe it. They absolutely believe that that's what happened during those hurricanes as well. And they believe that's what happened this time. And I don't really discount it, but I also haven't looked closely enough to say that the evidence is definitely there. There may be a disparate impact argument, I think, [but] it's going be a while before we know whether or not it is. And frankly, it's going to depend on the numbers, you know. One other issue is that the Army Corps of Engineers does the levees, and because they are a federal agency, they are exonerated from a lot of litigation. And so it's very, very difficult to go after them on this kind of case. And that's another big factor in whether or not there's a disparate impact case. We could find that there is disparate, but because it's the federal government, I think they're exonerated from the case.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
You were saying before, that was your hope in five years, advocates like you—.
JAMES PERRY:
Right.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
—would get your way. What does it look like if—?
JAMES PERRY:
Well, I think that if we don't get our way, there are a few things. The first is that the majority of the people in the city are not people who lived in New Orleans before the storm. And so the landscape completely changes, and it becomes a different city. And we lose a lot of the cultural heritage that makes the city who it is, or what it is, which would be really, really unfortunate. I think that New Orleans with a strong middle class would be an incredibly wonderful city to have. You could really have a great time. I mean, you're always going to have a good time in New Orleans, no matter what the economic situation is, but it would just be really great, I think, if we had this great, strong, vibrant middle class. I think that the other New Orleans ends up with a middle class too, but it's just not the same people who were here initially. All that tourists come to see and enjoy, all those things, right now and before the storm, what they were seeing for the most part is real New Orleans. When you come in for Mardi Gras, you're not coming in and seeing something that we put on, or make up, you're really coming in and seeing what the locals do, you know, you're coming in and for that day, you become a local. But we don't want it to become like Disneyworld, where it's a side that we show that isn't how the city really is, and that's the potential if we don't do a good job at making sure that our own citizens are able to return. So I think that's probably my primary fear or concern. Now, it's still one of those things that's kind of balanced a bit with this issue of if you lived in the city and you were low income, you had a job, you worked at a hotel or something, but didn't make enough money to afford decent housing and were living in public housing as a result, you get evacuated, and you get to Atlanta or somewhere, and then you find a job that pays you double with the same set of skills, and then you find a decent apartment, and then—you know, our schools were in bad shape—and then you get your kid into a good school in Atlanta, and there's another part of me that says, well, to the extent that I can't guarantee that I can give that person the same opportunities here in the city of New Orleans, you know, I'm happy for them. I'm happy for them where they are. Do I want 'em back? Yeah. But I don't want 'em to come back to their detriment.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Are you here to stay?
JAMES PERRY:
I'm here to stay, yeah. Done deal. You know, one of the funny things after the storm was friends from all over the country called me and offered me loads of jobs, jobs that paid better than I get paid here, and without even thinking it through, in every instance I said no. I'm not going anywhere, I gotta be here. And it's interesting that our general counsel, Lucia Blacksher said the same thing. And I think they were good intentions. The idea was, your city is gone, you probably don't even have a job anymore, come up here and let us help you out. And so both of us really felt this urge. And after the storm, we were the only two employees left, and we both felt this urge that we had to get back to the city, and we had to be involved in the rebuilding process. So I'm here, not going anywhere.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
That's about the list of questions that I have, but are there any other things that—. I guess when people are looking back and listening to this interview, they're gonna be in part looking for the levers that made the change. Are there things we haven't talked about that you'd want to point out and say if you could really have your hand in another pot, or if there's one particular housing thing that's not being addressed—?
JAMES PERRY:
Yeah, you know, when you look at the governor's plan, the governor has put forth a plan to deal with housing issues, and the Congress has already appropriated several billions of dollars and is looking to appropriate another set of money to the state. So the governor has this plan for how to spend it. And it focuses almost exclusively on homeownership, and on what's going to happen with homeowners. But the issue is that about fifty-five percent of New Orleanians before the storm were renters. And I think one of the keys to a strong economy and to a strong city is to have a higher rate of home ownership. So we have to get there, but I think the focus on home ownership is going to leave out all those renters, all those people who rented property in the city of New Orleans. That's gonna be a tough issue, in terms of getting folks back. When they come back initially, we have to have enough rental housing for them. So that's one thing. The other issue there is the rental money that is available—there's more money that's available for big multi-family housing, which is good, for instance, for the areas of the state that Rita hit, that Hurricane Rita hit. They have more multi-family housing, and the reason is that they have big swaths of land where you can build a 400-unit apartment complex, but you know, New Orleans is an urban area where most of the land is already taken. There aren't big swaths of land where you can go and just build a huge complex, except for New Orleans East. Which of course was under water, you know. But particularly in the parts of New Orleans that are still here, you know, we just don't have — [Phone ringing] I wonder if that does it—places for people to come and build huge complexes. So a lot of the rental money that's available won't even really benefit us. Our rental housing is mostly what I call mom-and-pop rental housing, because it's people who buy a double shotgun and they live in one side and rent the other side out. Or they buy a four-unit property, they live in one unit and rent the other three units out. And so the rental assistance really has to get to them. And some of these programs, particularly the four-unit properties, may be left out. Anything more than two units may be left out. So that's a big problem.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Left out of the plan, or they just won't be able to access—.
JAMES PERRY:
They won't be able to access the homeowner money. The home ownership money.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Okay. Right.
JAMES PERRY:
And then at the same time, there's not a lot of rental money available to the small folks. So that's tough. That's one thing. The other thing that's interesting is supply and demand and its effect on the rental market. You know, before the storm, if you paid $750 in rent, you could live in a really nice apartment in the city of New Orleans. And if you were willing to pay $1000, or $1200, you could get into the Garden District or maybe even the French Quarter. But now, $1000 a month, since the storm, gets you into a rinky-dink apartment that still needs a lot of work, without central air conditioning, with leaky faucets and all kinds of problems. And so the other issue that's out there is just that the cost of rental housing is so so so so high right now. For middle income people, who want to come back, who rented before the storm, and need to rent after the storm, or who own their own home, but can't move into the home because it's flooded, they can't afford to rent the properties that are available. You know, the law of supply and demand says when you have a larger demand, you can sell your supply for more. And that's what landlords have done. In five years I'd be curious to see how that whole process panned out. Because so far, the State Legislature has turned the door every time a bill came up that would try to do anything about rents, you know, to try to level them or ease them, even set guidelines that didn't have the force of law. Even that has failed in the State Legislature. So I think what's gonna happen is we're going to have to see where the market takes us on that issue. And it's gonna be interesting to see. There are so many things that have the potential to be the deterrent that keeps people from returning. I think largely the debate in the media has been about public housing, but it's regular market-rate housing that's also a big issue that really hasn't had that much attention paid to it. But folks all the time say, "Where am I gonna live? I can't rent anything." So it's going to be interesting to see that. Historically, for this area, New Orleans has been the driver, you know, it's the center of the economy, and so the suburbs, Metairie, and St. Tammany Parish, and Jefferson Parish, all these other areas really kind of work off of New Orleans, just like it happens in most other areas. But so there's the potential here for one of those other areas to become the center of the metro area, the core economic driver for the metro area, because so many New Orleanians can't get back into New Orleans and so they're settling into these areas around us. And also so many folks, so many businesses ended up relocating, and either can't or have decided not to reopen in the city. So it's gonna be [interesting to] see if Metairie becomes the core in five years, or if New Orleans is able to revive itself.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
If New Orlean's history is so rich but the legacies are so strong, it might be easier to break some of the patterns of discrimination in a new place.
JAMES PERRY:
Ehhhh.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Or are those patterns just as strong?
JAMES PERRY:
You know I'm a little pessimistic. Yes and no, is I guess the best way I'll put it. One of the great things about the storm, and it's sort of forcing us to jump into looking into these other areas of the state, is that when you have a census tract, for instance, that's ninety or ninety-five percent white in Lafayette, Louisiana, and you have landlords who—it wasn't even an issue—they never really had to even consider renting to someone of another race, or another ethnicity. So the good news is now they have to consider it, and there are a lot of good folks who are going to say, "Oh! No problem," and rent to folks, and then meet them and get to know them and have a new cultural experience and in the process, really further race relations in their area. The other good news is that, when that doesn't happen, because New Orleanians who are there know us, they'll call us and we'll investigate and if that person's heart doesn't change, then we'll use the law to make their actions change at least. So it will further a lot of civil rights, at least in housing, I think, because we'll look at them much more closely than we would have looked at them before, and even if we're not looking, there are interactions that are happening that weren't happening before. So on that front, yeah, I think that there are some good things happening. That said, my overall pessimism is just that people are inherently distrustful of things, of people who are different from them. And it takes interactions with those different people before they get it: "Oh, you're not that different!" And so I gotta see how many people get to interact, you know. So it could be for the better, and I hope it is.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
Do you think that people—not you, but let's say the clients that you tend to work with—do you think that they're becoming more politically aware about these issues and politically involved, or is it still: it hits home when it's about your home?
JAMES PERRY:
Both. Before the storm we did an investigation of Bourbon Street nightclubs. There was a guy who was on Bourbon Street, and there was a big melee and this whole issue of him being able to get into a night club. [He was] African-American, and he couldn't get in; they said he didn't meet the dress code, but he had on dress clothes, he had on slacks and shoes. He looks behind him—he's African-American—he sees loads of white guys in the club wearing t-shirts and tennis shoes. And so it becomes this big argument, they get into a fight with the doormen, and the doormen subdue him and his friend. The whole time, they sit on his back. The doorman is 300 some-odd pounds, and they suffocate him, and he dies, right there in front of the nightclub on the street, right? So the Mayor calls for us, the Mayor calls and says, "Well, we should have this investigation to see whether or not nightclubs are discriminating." So we sent testers out. We sent a black guy and a white guy to the nightclubs to see whether or not there is discrimination happening. And so what happened over and over again was that once our guys got into the club, our [black] guy would order like a gin and tonic, and they'd order it, and it might be eight or nine dollars, and our [white] guy would order the same drink from the same bartender and it'd be three or four dollars. Right? Over and over and over again. So fifty-seven percent of the time our black testers were discriminated against. And the reason I bring it up is the loads of times African-Americans came up to me after—it was really well publicized, lot of news headlines—and black folks would come up to me and say, "You know, I had no idea that I could be paying more for a drink than other folks. I had never even considered it. Never a possibility. Thought hadn't even crossed my mind." But afterwards, I would get all these jokes about folks saying, "Well, now I only go to Bourbon Street bars with my white friends, so I can make sure I pay the same for drinks," and things like that. But the point is I think that the public discourse does get people to talk about it and to think about it, and when we get a big public settlement or case, we get more calls afterwards. So I think it's not just in the case where it's an individual's problem in housing, I think it's also the headlines about the issues [that] make people rethink what's going on with them and [become] more politically astute and aware and then also more aware about civil rights issues. I don't know. I think that's the case. One more story is I started a fair-housing center in Mississippi a few years back, and the first investigation we did, it was just to see whether or not discrimination was happening. There wasn't a complaint or anything. So we sent a white guy and a black guy to an apartment complex and the black guy is told that the unit is $700 a month, and the white guy is told that it's $400 a month, right? So we don't tell the testers what the result of their case was, we just record the information and we release this report. And so the black tester comes to me a few weeks later and he says, you know, "Now that the report is done, I want to know if I can go back and rent that apartment, because it was so nice, the lady was so helpful, and I can afford it. I really liked it, and I need an apartment." And so I had to break the rules and tell him, "They told you 700, but they told the other guy 400 bucks." Or whatever the amount was. "They told the other tester a different amount, and we're pretty sure that you were discriminated against." So at least for him, even though he was so involved, and he played a role, and he knew that we found in that study that most of our testers were discriminated against, because that person was so nice he just assumed, "No, that's not happening to me!" He was ready to go and rent it. And he really struggled after that. I kind of feel bad, because he really had a problem afterwards, because he couldn't gauge whether he should be distrustful of people, because this woman was so nice and so helpful to him, but was about to steal $300 a month from him just because he was black. And he really had a lot of trouble dealing with it later on. But my point is that even being in the heart of our work, it wasn't enough for him to become more astute or aware of the situation.
ANDY HOROWITZ:
I was just thinking about how at the beginning you said, back into housing, it's the civil rights project that has done it for you, and I've just been thinking sort of more broad