Peter Theis is a staff attorney at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, whose mission is to eradicate housing discrimination in the New Orleans area. One of the center’s tools is enforcement of the federal Fair Housing Act. Peter and his colleagues pursue administrative complaints and federal lawsuits under the Act, as well as informally advocate with housing providers to protect clients from discriminatory practices. Before working at the center, he spent years litigating criminal appeals as a public defender and took a midcareer sabbatical in South America. Originally from Topeka, Kansas, he has two children, 2-year-old Franklin and 2-month-old Lila.
You recently settled a federal case on behalf of a domestic-violence survivor who was essentially evicted after a violent incident. That case spurred the passage of the new Louisiana Violence Against Women Act. What work did you do beyond just filing the lawsuit?
While I colitigated the case with John Adcock, another staff attorney, our organization’s policy team took the initiative to research how widespread such evictions were in Louisiana. We discovered that many women (and their children) were becoming homeless, unable to secure new housing because landlords were reluctant to rent to a person with an eviction or to an abuse survivor. As a result, our whole organization mobilized (again with the policy team leading) to support a legislative campaign driven by a coalition of organizations to fill the gap in existing state discrimination laws. Our client in the lawsuit was instrumental in developing legislative support; her story in particular motivated the bill sponsors to take up the cause and spend political capital to push what initially proved an unpopular law among lawmakers. After an intensive groundwork effort spanning two sessions, a strong law was carried through skeptical committees and both the house and senate through the perseverance of supportive lawmakers, legislative staff, and the coalition of advocates. In a minor support role, I was witness to the whole process—a total departure from the litigation model of a few attorneys squaring off against a few others to resolve a case.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
A.P. Tureaud, the only African American attorney practicing in Louisiana in the 1930s and early ’40s. He not only tirelessly mounted legal challenges to segregation and racial inequality as local counsel with the NAACP but did so creatively and successfully in the ’40s in an utterly segregationist state, well before Brown v. Board of Education.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I take the most satisfaction when I have the opportunity to resolve issues for clients before their lives or plans are derailed.
The domestic-violence case you asked about had every ingredient an attorney can wish for—a great client, a clear injustice, an opportunity to push the law toward greater protection of civil rights, and a hard-fought resolution. It was satisfying. But in a better world our client would not have had to go through what she did, where no settlement or court triumph would truly make her whole. I think I take the most satisfaction when I have the opportunity to resolve issues for clients before their lives or plans are derailed—like persuading a city council to grant an accommodation to its zoning laws to allow for a group home or persuading a landlord not to evict an individual who is late on rent because of complications related to a disability.
What’s the biggest fair-housing issue that you see with your clients?
Denial of housing based on race. We just released a study that illustrated how landlords apply criminal background check policies, even when applicants have the same background, in an uneven and discriminatory manner—50 percent of the African American testers experienced differential treatment in comparison to similarly situated white testers. A study that we did last year and that investigated rental practices in high-opportunity neighborhoods also showed a depressingly high rate of discrimination. We just settled a case where the rental agent kept a log of prospective tenants calling about a vacancy in which the African Americans were identified by racial epithets. This is a city where African Americans are the majority population and where neighborhood segregation remains pronounced. The discrimination on the part of private landlords continues to impede meaningful integration even where public policies have begun to support it.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I love to visit Bourbon Street. Many locals avoid it: too touristy, kitschy, cheesy, boorish, loud, lowbrow, and déclassé. But there are few status-signaling opportunities (no velvet ropes, no fancy cocktails, no dress norms), and I love that the unself-conscious revelry happens in beautiful buildings reaching back centuries. Anywhere else such a street would be colonized by the affluent and Soho-ized with upscale everything. I hope it never changes.