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Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” Post-Katrina Housing Wreckage

May 18, 2022

When celebrities or other wealthy-yet-geographically-removed individuals come to a community to help in a time of crisis, those tempted to accept the help should be cautious. It is not that affluent, would-be helpers do not have good intentions; it is that they may not understand the community that they want to help but naively think they do, and they do not have to face any potential error or damage from their involvement in real time, face-to-face, if they do not reside in the community (i.e., the helper from a geographical distance has a sort of protection from accountability by virtue of not having to physically contend, in person, day after day, with the consequences of largesse gone awry); and (and this is a biggie), celebrities may not realize that they are (and should be) responsible for those under their influence and employ to carry out said project.

Consider the awful mess that is actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation and associated entities, which swept into New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina promising “high quality housing to the poor and distressed.”

NBC News, 2018

In 2007 Pitt formed the nonprofit, Make It Right (MIR) Foundation. (Tax forms for 2007-2018 can be found here. MIR stopped filing returns in 2018.) Here it what MIR reported as its purpose and service accomplishments on its first tax filing (2007):

The website referenced above is no longer in existence, but here is an archived version dated October 11, 2007. Note that formatting is lost with archiving; however, given how Pitt’s project crashed and burned in subsequent years, and how his MIR tried to rob their homeowners of their right to recourse, AND how Pitt himself tried to remove himself as the object of litigation, his opening quote about “failing [the most vulnerable] and failing miserably” is ironic (click on image to enlarge):

The best way to convey the backstory and complications resulting from MIR’s poor decisions (including unwisely taking on other projects before the New Orleans project was completed) is best told in this 2018 class action lawsuit brought by two MIR homeowners:

Here are excerpts from the 2018 suit (click on images to enlarge):

The reference above it to MIR’s 2009 tax filing.

Another reference to MIR’s 2009 tax form, and another word about Make It Right Solar, Inc.:

So here we have MIR potentially overextending itself by taking on home development in Newark, NJ, even though it had not yet fulfilled its commitment to New Orleans residents. The suit continues by noting that “by the end of 2011,” MIR had completed only 73 of the promised homes. Meanwhile, in 2011, MIR took on yet another project, in Kansas City, MO, and in 2013, it started a project in Fort Peck, MT.

The suit next references MIR’s 2013 tax filing as the place in which MIR noted issues “related to certain materials in the construction of completed homes and certain designs of homes that required significant repair costs.” However, I cannot locate the excerpt included in the lawsuit, which was copied from some other document. Since the excerpt concerns cost changes related to December 2014 (which is out of the realm of a 2013 tax return), the referenced “accompanying consolidation statement” must be attached to some other financial document. I searched MIR’s 2013 to 2016 tax forms and did not see it.

The point in the lawsuit is that homeowners were not formally made aware of the defects.

Here is the text from the suit:

Since the referenced excerpt is difficult to read in picture form, have typed it below:

Make It Right Foundation and Subsidiaries

During 2013, the Foundation identified issues related to certain materials used in the construction of the completed homes and certain designs of homes that required significant repair costs. As such, the Foundation recognized a warranty and repair liability in the accompanying consolidated statement of financial positions of $2,968,714 and $1,525,996 as of December 31, 2014 and 2013, respectively, for the estimated construction repair costs to be incurred in subsequent periods. The Foundation recognized approximately $2,500,000 and $1,800,000 of repair and warranty expense during the years ended December 31, 2014 and 2013, respectively. These expenses are classified as Program Expense in the accompanying consolidated statement of activities and changes in net assets.

Some of MIT’s Lower Ninth Ward houses were repaired, such as this one, featured in this December 2013 Woodworking Network article:

Some were repaired, but it seems to have been very few. Years passed, and after years, MIR sent engineers to inspect its Lower Ninth ward homes. Also, MIR arguably made it difficult for homeowners to view the resulting inspection reports. It seems that MIR was trying to run out the clock on potential legal recourse to which homeowners were entitled according to Louisiana law:

The next MIR strategy to avoid litigation was to have unsuspecting homeowners sign away their rights via nondisclosure and binding arbitration agreements, thereby leveraging MIR to avoid litigation by exploiting the homeowners. Referenced in the lawsuit excerpt below are MIR COO/Treasurer/ board member James Mazzuto and MIR employee Tanya Harris:

This Make It Right home’s front porch was crumbling and collapsing in 2021. Judith Keller

In April 2015, Pitt sued TimberSIL, the manufacturer of the wood used to build MIR’s Lower Ninth Ward homes. (According to Woodworking Network, TimberSIL was discontinued in 2010 “due to performance.”) The suit was still pending in 2019, during which time MIR’s Lower Ninth Ward residents were being strung along and kept in the dark, even as the issues with their homes had more than begun to show. (The issue with rotting TimberSIL wood was already making headlines by December 2013.)

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right has not filed a tax form since 2018. The Make It Right website is not longer in operation.

In 2018, Brad Pitt tried to remove himself from the 2018 class action suit referenced above. In October 2019, a federal judge ruled that Pitt would remain a defendant in the suit.

In September 2018, Pitt sued architect of record, John C. Williams.

In April 2021, Pitt sued MIR’s former executive director, Tom Darden III, and other NIR officers, for (as the Architect’s Newspaper puts it) “widespread project mismanagement from 2007 to 2016.” As ArchTech notes:

As the first of the homes reached completion, the Lower 9th was transformed into a storm-battered architectural tourist destination of sorts as visitors descended via tour bus to rubberneck at the ultramodern elevated structures. However, displaced residents of the Lower 9th were hesitant to return to a neighborhood still largely cut off from the rest of the city by the storm and lacking basic services. Meanwhile, new arrivals to the rebounding city gravitated toward other neighborhoods. In 2014, it was revealed that roughly two-dozen Make It Right Homes were already in a severe state of decay due to the use of TimberSIL, a nontoxic wood product unable to withstand high levels of moisture. New Orleans, of course, is a city known for being on the steamy side. (Make It Right sued the manufacturer of TimberSIL in 2015.)

In 2018, serious complaints from homeowners came to light regarding electrical fires, mold, gas and water leaks, foundation issues, and the use of building materials that were substandard or incompatible with the temperamental New Orleans climate. These complaints yielded a proposed class-action lawsuit against the Make It Right by two homeowners. In October of last year, a deteriorating home designed by Adjaye Associates and completed in 2011 was deemed unsafe by the city and slated for demolition. This came less than two years after another rot-ravaged Make It Right home, this one designed by KieranTimberlake, was condemned and razed.

In December 2021, MIR was sued by a bank; one of the MIT properties was facing seizure by municipal government, and the man who kept the lawns was also trying to sue MIT for nonpayment but could not locate a representative to be served in the suit. From the December 10, 2021

In recent months Make It Right has also filed court documents asserting that its former officers and directors “severely mismanaging the foundation” during construction of the houses. Particularly, Make It Right’s current leadership blames the old guard for pursuing tax credits that did not benefit the project and for blundering into what they called the “Blitz Build” program, presumably to streamline and expedite construction. The nonprofit alleges certain past leaders “acted in their own self-interest” over the interest of the organization.

In view of those high-stakes issues, the empty lot at 1801 Jourdan Ave. is small potatoes, but it has added to Make It Right’s recent woes. It is owned by Make It Right, and is littered with the remnants of wooden pilings, a broken toilet and other debris. City Hall cited it as a nuisance, raising the specter of a $705 fine, and asked the Sheriff’s Office to seize the property.

Then there is Wesley Broaden Sr. The owner of a lawn care service, he asserts that Make It Right owes him about $4,500.

Broaden said that for 10 years he has cut the lawns of Make It Right’s properties, for $35 per lot. The organization occasionally missed a payment, he said, but always made good on what it owed. When payments stopped about six months ago, he continued mowing for a while.

When it became clear to him that his bills would remain unpaid, he tried to sue Make It Right. But Broaden said he was told that the court was unable to locate a representative of Make It Right to receive official notice of the suit, so he’s thus far been denied his day in court.

“They just vanished on me,” he said.

Make It Right could not be reached for comment.

This Make It Right home underwent major structural repairs in 2018. Judith Keller

In February 2022, Common Edge featured an interview with German native and international research scholar Judith Keller, who moved from Illinois to New Orleans post-Katrina and covered MIR’s home build as part of her masters thesis. Below are some excerpts of Keller’s responses from that interview, in which interviewer Martin Pedersen is trying to discern what went wrong with MIR’s Lowere Ninth ward housing:

I started this work (tracking the developments of Make It Right) back in 2018. It was part of my master’s thesis, then I graduated in 2019 and went on to do my Ph.D., and that’s what brought me back to the U.S. for further research. And recently when I was in New Orleans, in November and December (2021), I revisited the community and saw how the state of the homes had further deteriorated, and how things that had already been bad in 2018 were now even worse. That inspired me to write the article for The Conversation, to draw more attention to the situation.

Some are completely remodeled. They had a flat roof that had to be replaced with a pitched one, or the entire pilings had to be cut out and redone. Some houses that had already received repairs now need additional repairs. And then there were a lot of homes that have never been inspected and that haven’t had any repairs done. They’re in bad shape and need help. I think about six homes remain in good shape.

I first visited in 2018, and there were already a lot of homes that had issues. But it has gotten worse. And that basically mirrors the time that Make It Right has been inactive. Some of the homes were just sitting empty, some of the homes didn’t get the repairs they needed. But not all of the issues are visible from the outside. Some residents I talked to had problems with mold and termites, and that’s not something you would see from the streets.

Your other point was about the role of the famous architects. … Most of them proposed fairly avant-garde ideas that were really more about design, the look of things, rather than the local context, especially the climate.

…The residents are aware of how important their role is. They’re trying to maintain their houses. The repairs they’re asking for still fall under the promises that they got from Make It Right. Substandard materials are not the residents’ fault. That’s not a maintenance issue. Those are structural issues caused by Make It Right. Some of the residents are now stepping in and doing some of these repairs themselves, even though it’s hard on them. Many of them are low-income, and they cannot renovate their homes out of pocket.

Another Brad Pitt Make It Right home demolished in the Lower Ninth Ward. The property sat, rotted, and eventually became an eyesore. October 14, 2020

Here is the crux of the matter, as Keller states during her interview:

So, first of all, it’s really important for me to say that I’m not pointing my finger at Make It Right or Brad Pitt. I don’t want to single out one person from Make It Right and say, they’re responsible. A number of things went wrong. One of them was that homes were not designed to properly withstand the climate in New Orleans. Some of the local features of the neighborhood were not taken into consideration. That was really crucial. They also used some experimental materials that didn’t work as they expected them to. And, again, I’m not saying that’s their fault. It was probably a good idea, at first, to try out something new. But when they don’t work, you have to own up to your mistakes and then try to fix those mistakes. That’s what I blame on Make It Right. When some of these issues started coming out, they were not transparent. They wanted homeowners to sign nondisclosure agreements. They did not ever come up with a formal apology. And I think that’s when Make It Right went really wrong. It’s not their fault that some of the structures did not work. It’s not their fault that some of the construction companies made mistakes. But it is their fault that they didn’t assume responsibility, didn’t show accountability, when the issues started to come out.

As of February 2022, only 6 of the 109 Lower Ninth Ward homes built by Pitt’s MIR are in “livable condition.”

Pitt and his Make It Right need to own up to their mistakes and either fix the damaged homes for the residents or compensate them for their loss, both of property and of peace of mind. That and that alone would finally Make It Right.

Celebrities wanting to come to the rescue of others should take a lesson from Pitt’s experiences. Don’t be naive. Research what you’re getting yourself into, including liability. Aim for practicality rather than glamour. Do not overextend.

Consider that the same people you aim to help you can also hurt really badly. Know what is transpiring in your own organization.

Don’t set yourself up for choosing to save your own skin when the best laid plans go awry.

Frankly, the best way to help as an outsider is not to start a project from scratch but instead to contribute to established, reputable organizations with experience in approaching the crisis at hand– and who are experienced in assisting the community you wish to serve.

As for the residents who were victimized by Make It Right, I cannot fault them in this situation. New Orleanians’ lives were in such upheaval post-Katrina, who would have said no to a celebrity riding into town with promises of affordable, energy-efficient housing constructed by experts?

No, no. This debacle I wholly lay at the feet of Brad Pitt. He must Make It Right.

One of the abandoned Make It Right houses. From Common Edge.
From the September 2018 “June 30: The moldering shell of a Make It Right house at 5012 N. Derbigny St. in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward was demolished. Built just seven years before, the long-unoccupied building had become a tattered loaf of rotting wood, fraying tarpaulin and ominous open doorways. Its demolition brought attention to possible defects in the designs of the experimental houses.”


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One Comment
  1. speduktr permalink

    A lot of elite philanthropists should pay attention to this debacle. Too many seem to ride in with their pet projects with little or no knowledge of what is needed or wanted. The paternalistic “I know what’s best” attitude has led to too many disastrous outcomes.

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