When Brad Pitt Tried to Save the Lower Ninth Ward - Levees.Org

 
When Brad Pitt Tried to Save the Lower Ninth Ward - Levees.Org
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    February 15, 2019, 4:00 AM CST

                            When Brad Pitt Tried to Save the Lower
                                         Ninth Ward

                      His Make It Right Foundation built 109 homes in New Orleans, but
                                  critics say many of them are badly flawed.

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▲ Brad Pitt visits New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward on July 13, 2006. PHOTOGRAPHER: MARK MAINZ/GETTY IMAGES
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By Rob Walker

 THIS
             In the months that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was much -
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             discussion about how to rebuild the New Orleans neighborhoods devastated
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             by flooding. Some even questioned whether certain areas should be rebuilt at
ost          all: The city’s population would likely be smaller; perhaps its footprint should
mail         be revised? The Lower Ninth Ward, for instance—a working-class black
             neighborhood ravaged when a floodwall failed—might be a lost cause, some
         said, because it was so severely damaged.
            Neighborhood residents and activists pushed back, insisting the Lower Nine
         deserved rebuilding. One of the most high-profile efforts to do so came from an
         unlikely figure: Brad Pitt. In 2007 the actor founded the Make It Right
         Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission was to build affordable housing to help
         Lower Nine residents come home. Attracting designs from prize-winning
         architects and committing to the highest ener y-efficiency standards, Make It
         Right pledged to build 150 residences. As Pitt later wrote, the organization
         aimed to make “a human success story of how we can build in the future, how
         we can build with equality, how we can build for families.”

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Over seven years, 106 houses were completed (three were duplexes, making
    the total number of residences 109). But somewhere around late 2015, new
    construction came to a standstill. Since then, little by little, the story of the
    project has changed. Residents have complained about flaws in design,
    construction, and materials; last summer a house had to be demolished. “Make
    It Right seems to have made it blight,” a local investigative publication, the Lens,
    sneered. Even Architectural Digest, which years earlier had praised the project
    effusively, asked, “Where Did Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation Go Wrong?”
    The organization seemed to fall silent. A spokesman for Pitt declined to
    comment for this story. Attempts to get Make It Right officials, former
    executives, and various associated lawyers to comment on the record were
    unsuccessful.
       In short, Make It Right has gradually evolved from a bold example of design’s
    potential to solve problems into a cautionary tale. The lasting lesson of the
    project may be that the excitement that flows from flashy opening fanfare can
    only do so much. The test is everything that follows.

    Pitt came to know New Orleans during shoots for movies such as The Curious
    Case of Benjamin Button; in 2007 he and Angelina Jolie bought a house in the
    French Quarter. After Katrina, Pitt decried the injustice of the Lower Ninth Ward
    suffering because a federally guaranteed floodwall had                       failed.
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        Floodwater from the industrial canal wiped out block after block ofBloomberg
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    many built between the 1920s and ’70s. The “Lower” name refers not to the                     T     clients
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                                                                       thanT
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    area’s  elevation,
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    and Lakeview neighborhoods,               but
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on the downriver side of the canal. Rebuilding in the area lagged, and when
    government programs proved inadequate, a slew of nonprofits emerged.

        Pitt connected with green-focused initiatives to rebuild in the Lower Nine.
    With an evidently genuine interest in architecture, he was able to attract designs
    from both local architects and some of the field’s best-known                          globalOffers
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    David Adjaye, Shigeru Ban, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne. He was also willing
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    listen, recalls Steven Bingler, of Concordia in New Orleans, one of the Louisiana
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    architects    brought
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                                         on. Bingler helped organize
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    that led Make It Right to     Getprioritize    former
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                                                                        View  the most devastated
chunk of the neighborhood. Pitt, Bingler says, was “100 percent committed”
   and willing to make tough decisions.
     The new houses weren’t free, but at about $150,000 (and often generously
   financed), they were much less than they cost to build. Featuring solar panels
   and other ener y-efficient details, they promised low utility bills. The designs
   were modernistic, with idiosyncratic rooflines. Make It Right buyers could pick
   the model they wanted. Pitt committed $5 million of his own money, and his
   star power helped to draw big donations at celebrity-studded galas, plus
   financial support from the Clinton Global Initiative and other sources. By 2009,
   with millions in funding, the project had completed its first half-dozen homes.

   At its founding, Make It Right worked with Cherokee Gives Back—a philanthropic
   offshoot of the Cherokee Fund, a North Carolina private equity company
   specializing in cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites—on
   construction planning, logistics, and back-end organizational support. Tom
   Darden, the son of Cherokee’s founder, became Make It Right’s executive
   director. Youthful and confident, Darden presented a charismatic face for the
   organization. Plenty of residents seemed to be fans: “He cared about us,” says
   Kamaria Allen.
       But multiple sources who worked with the organization say its early years
   were better intentioned than they were managed. Thom Pepper, executive
   director of Common Ground Relief Inc., a nonprofit formed shortly after Katrina
   that was a member of Make It Right’s advisory committee, recalls the foundation
   spending lavishly on equipment rental and other overhead. “They would have
   us come to these brunches at Tipitina’s,” he says, referring to the New Orleans
   music venue. Common Ground built one Make It Right house, but the process
   was chaotic, with design specs that seemed to change daily. Pepper says the
   group chose not to build for Make It Right again.

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A confidential May 2014 Make It Right board report suggests the organization,
   which had so far taken in $48 million in gifts and grants, was grappling with
   money problems. Make It Right by then employed 27 staffers and eight
   independent contractors to manage work on 100 or so houses. The report noted
   that an upcoming fundraising gala, featuring Bruno Mars, Chris Rock, and other
   stars, was lagging financial expectations.
     Back in the Lower Nine, five years after the first houses went up,
   “unexpected repair costs” totaled $1.8 million, the report said. Notably, 37 decks
   and porches had been “identified to have structural issues involving product
   failure.” These were, the report said, mostly connected to an experimental
   lumber product called TimberSIL. At the time, 19 decks had been replaced at a
   cost of roughly $500,000. Make It Right later sued the maker of TimberSIL, then
   settled, though the details are confidential.         View Subscription Offers Sign in
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▲ 1937 Tennessee St. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN SCHUTMAAT FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK; RESEARCH PROVIDED
               BY RESIDENT CONSTANCE FOWLER

     The problems weren’t universal or insurmountable, one former Make It Right
   employee says, but the organization was focused on a happy public image.
   “They just didn’t want to say: ‘Sorry, we screwed some things up,’ ” this person
   says. Bus tours rumbled through the area, offering a peek at name-brand
   architecture in what had been a disaster zone. In August 2015, Pitt told the
   Times-Picayune, “I get this well of pride when I see this little oasis of color and
   the solar panels” and when residents tell him of their low utility bills. “It’s a
   reminder of why we push like we push. It makes it all worthwhile.” This seems
   to have been his last substantial public comment about Make It Right.
      Multiple observers say 2016 marked a kind of turning point for Make It
   Right’s relationship with the neighborhood. Darden left, with no public
   explanation. The neighborhood meetings Make It Right used to host petered
   out. The organization stopped talking to the press; residents say they were
   ignored. Its website fell out of date and is peppered with dead links, and the
   nonprofit doesn’t appear to have made the requisite tax filings for a 501(c)(3)
   since 2015. In September 2016, Pitt and Jolie announced their divorce, and
   subsequently sold their New Orleans property. The foundation’s staff dwindled
   to a handful. As Pepper, of Common Ground, recalls, “All of a sudden, nobody’s
   there.”                                           View Subscription Offers  Sign in
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   Allen  now9 shares
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   on the same lot, she says, asYou      the house
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precisely the kind of Lower Nine residents the nonprofit was meant to help.
      Allen bought a Make It Right house of her own in 2011 for $130,000, one of
   several in the neighborhood designed by Adjaye Associates of London that
   featured a top-floor deck covered by a flat roof. She loved it, but within months
   mold and mushrooms started cropping up inside. She says Make It Right didn’t
   make the structural and material changes she believes were needed to fix the
   problem permanently. In 2013 the organization agreed to buy the house back
   from her. Almost six years later, it remains vacant, with the lawn neatly
   trimmed, but the flat roof notably bowed. Flat roofs feature in several of the
   most troubled Make It Right properties; critics say they’re a bad idea in New
   Orleans, which endures much heavy rainfall. Adjaye Associates didn’t respond
   to a request for comment.
      Another owner, Constance Fowler, bought her Make It Right home in 2014,
   when the organization started making them available to teachers and first
   responders as well as former Lower Nine residents. She became concerned
   about a Make It Right home next door that was no longer occupied. An extensive
   repair process had stalled, and Fowler says the house stood half-complete for
   more than a year, its roof removed and replaced by a tarp. Convinced it was a
   mold-spawning health hazard, Fowler—who hasn’t had serious problems with
   her own house—complained repeatedly to the city. Make It Right paid for the
   building’s demolition.

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▲ Fowler (left) and Allen. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN SCHUTMAAT FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

       Fowler walked me around the neighborhood, pointing out potential
   problems and past repairs. Working with a visiting graduate student doing a
   thesis on Make It Right, she’s compiled a spreadsheet detailing the problems. Of
   the 105 remaining Make It Right structures, she says, 44 have undergone notable
   renovation or repair—material replacement, flat-porch roofs remade at an angle.
   An additional 17 show evidence, in her judgment, of mold or rot. At least six are
   vacant. In 2016 and 2017, multiple residents say, Make It Right sent an
   engineering team to inspect its homes but never shared the results, even with
   residents who asked repeatedly.
      In September attorneys filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against
   Make It Right on behalf of two property owners. It argues that the nonprofit
   should be on the hook for full repairs under Louisiana’s New Home Warranty
   Act, plus additional compensation for mental distress. Make It Right has filed to
   have the suit moved to federal court, and Pitt and other named defendants have
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       The same month the nonprofit did some finger-pointing of its own,   filing
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   lawsuit  against
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              9 free articles C. WilliamsView
                                           Architects,     the  New Orleans      firm      that, according
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   to the complaint, served as You    thehave
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responsible for the final technical drawings used to build most of the Make It
   Right houses. “Moisture and water intrusion problems,” among other issues, the
   suit alleged, were the result of “defective design work” by Williams. “Rectifying
   the problems for all impacted homes is estimated to cost at least $20 million,” it
   claimed. The firm’s namesake founder, who’d defended the project against
   critics in the past, issued a statement calling the suit “shocking and insulting”
   and has moved to have it dismissed on technical grounds.

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       Neither Fowler nor Allen has joined the lawsuit, which they seeT
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   involved. Allen wants Make You        It Right
                                             have 9to  address
                                                    free            lingering problems. She cites a
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variety of mold and ventilation issues at her parents’ house and health problems
   she and her family endure. The organization simply stopped returning her calls,
   she says. She’s tried to persuade her parents to abandon the property. “We
   could rent something,” she says. “I would just walk away.”

   If Make It Right’s debut attracted oversize praise, maybe now it’s attracting
   oversize criticism precisely because of its flashy origins. While it remains silent,
   some residents, steadfastly committed to the neighborhood, say criticism of
   Make It Right is overblown. Robert Green is one. Outspoken and energetic, he’s
   become a kind of neighborhood figurehead. He grew up in the Lower Nine, lost
   his mother and a granddaughter in the flood, and lived in a Federal Emergency
   Management Agency trailer on his family’s land when the area had been
   reduced to acres of rubble. He’s a fierce advocate for what Make It Right has
   accomplished. Darting around his airy living room, he picks through
   memorabilia and press clippings. “They came in, and they built houses!” he
   says.

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▲ Green. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN SCHUTMAAT FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

     He points out a set of stone steps, the last remnant of the house his family
   owned for decades. “They were able to help us come back,” he says. “It
   wouldn’t have happened without Make It Right.”
      Pepper, of Common Ground, says most of the homes, reflecting homeowner
   pride, seem well-maintained. Bingler, whose Concordia architecture company
   was among the first asked to participate, hasn’t been in touch with anyone from
   Make It Right in years. The 10 homes his company designed—with a pitched roof
   and prominent, New Orleans-style front porch—have had only routine
   maintenance issues.
      More important than any problems with Make It Right’s 100 or so houses,
   Green says, “are the 3,000 houses that are not here.” Now there’s at least a
   sense of a place coming back. “I would much rather have a house to complain
   about,” he says, “than no house at all. And I’m not complaining.”

   New Orleans attracted a swarm of well-intentioned charitable or quasi--
   charitable efforts after Katrina, often involving people from outside the region.
   Many of these efforts sputtered out or flat-out failed. But some organizations
   have persisted.
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▲ 1832 Deslonde St. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN SCHUTMAAT FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK; RESEARCH PROVIDED
               BY RESIDENT CONSTANCE FOWLER

      Right around the time Make It Right was getting under way, Barnes & Noble
   Inc. founder Leonard Riggio started Project Home Again to build houses for
   residents of Gentilly who’d lost their home. Riggio wasn’t interested in fanfare;
   there were no galas and relatively little press. Home Again fulfilled its mission—
   building 101 houses—and kept going. Its designs were simpler and less
   conspicuous, and its structure and relationships made it possible to transition to
   a successor organization, Home by Hand, which builds affordable housing
   across the city. These efforts have resulted in 171 houses, with plans for dozens
   more and a pipeline of more than 130 qualified buyers.
      Oji Alexander, Home by Hand’s executive director, emphasizes that he has
   nothing critical to say about Make It Right, whose mission he admires. But he
   does note the importance of open communication, especially with the people
   his project means to serve. “Folks call us before they go to the paper,” he says.
   And more to the point, someone answers.

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