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Thread: Where Did Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation Go Wrong?

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    Default Where Did Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation Go Wrong?

    Where Did Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation Go Wrong?


    In the wake of a class action lawsuit, AD PRO explores how a well-intentioned aid initiative for Hurricane Katrina victims went awry
    By Kaitlin Menza


    January 18, 2019




    Homes in the Lower Ninth Ward built by the Make It Right Foundation on Deslonde Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. 11 years after the hurricane, residents of some Make It Right homes filed a class-action lawsuit against the organization, sayign the homes are now in disrepair.Photo: Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg via Getty Images







    “They gave us a tour of a house that was already built. It was going to be different,” says Alfreda Claiborne, a resident of one of the houses Brad Pitt’s nonprofit Make It Right Foundation built in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
    “We were going to be saving a lot on our electricity. It was storm protected. They [were] telling us stuff,” she remembers. “The impression we were under, the way the houses were built, if a storm did come, it would float.”
    Claiborne, 67, moved into a three-bedroom home on Tennessee Street with her husband, three children, and one grandchild in 2009. Situated on a corner, the house is a bleached beige rhombus with exaggerated geometric eaves, hovering on pilings high above the ground. It tapers downward in the back, where sheets of corrugated metal create a decorative checkerboard pattern around the multiple patios.

    “The house was nice when [we] moved in. It was everything we wanted,” Claiborne says. “We were all excited about this house.” But within a few short years of moving in, she says their happy home began to—quite literally—crumble beneath their feet.
    “Our porch, the wood is rotten. We have a hole in the porch. The railing came apart. Right now we have problems with the light switches. It's just coming apart,” she says. The rotting, moldy stairwells and porch don’t just smell: they’re dangerous both for Claiborne’s granddaughter and for her husband, who had a stroke a few years ago.
    According to Claiborne, the family has made multiple calls to Make It Right representatives, but have never heard back. “When you leave a message, they wouldn’t return your call. I just stopped calling them,” she says. The Claibornes didn’t have the money to fix the major issues themselves, as they sunk what was left of their savings into the down payment.
    Thirteen years after their original home in the Lower Ninth Ward drowned and after they were displaced to Fort Worth, Texas, to wait out the recovery, the family is facing hardship once again. “Yes, I wanted to come back,” Claiborne says of her return to New Orleans. “But if I knew how we would be treated and taken advantage of, I wouldn’t have come.”

    Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans when it hit in August 2005, killing more than 1,500 people in the state of Louisiana alone and displacing more than one million in the Gulf Coast region. While some residents could return to their homes within days, an estimated 600,000 households remained displaced a month later. The hurricane remains the largest residential disaster in American history.
    The Lower Ninth Ward, a working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood on the banks of the Mississippi River, was completely submerged by the hurricane. When actor Brad Pitt visited the area two years after the storm, he was alarmed by how little had been done to rebuild. Putting to use his considerable power and wealth, he pulled together 21 of the world’s most famous architects, as well as homeowners and community organizers in the Ward, and launched a project to build houses that were affordable, environmentally friendly, and aesthetically pleasing.
    Pitt pledged $5 million in matching donations toward the project and requested donations from international diplomats during a conference at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2007. On March 16, 2008, former president Bill Clinton picked up a shovel alongside Pitt and they broke ground on the project.


    Brad Pitt gives Ellen DeGeneres a walking tour of the homes ahead of a fundraiser in 2007.
    Photo: Julie Dermansky via Getty
    “We are so appreciative of the support we have received from the Lower Ninth Ward Community, the Clinton Global Initiative, and university students from around the country at our groundbreaking today,” Pitt said at the event. “We are excited about today, but need to remember that our project is one small part of addressing a much larger need. Thousands of people still need help in order to return home.”
    Ten years later, only 109 of the 150 have been completed, and of those 109, many appear to be falling apart. On September 7, 2018, two Lower Ninth Ward residents filed suit against the Make It Right Foundation, alleging that the nonprofit built and sold substandard houses with “defective” materials that caused structural issues, electrical and plumbing malfunctions, and insufficient ventilation.
    Further, the suit alleges that the foundation was aware of problems as early as 2013 and that Make It Right representatives arranged inspections of the houses in 2016, 2017, and 2018, but did not share the results with residents; in fact, the reps allegedly asked some residents to sign nondisclosure agreements before they would agree to make repairs, say the plaintiffs.
    “Make It Right was very good at pacifying people and putting them off, and pacifying people and putting them off. They might come back and fix one thing, but not everything,” says attorney Ron Austin, who is representing residents Lloyd Francis and Jennifer Decuir in the lawsuit. “I think they were able to get away with it because of who they were, because the residents were very grateful with Make It Right stepping in and showing interest in their community.”
    What some people fail to realize, Austin points out, is that these houses were not gifts from Pitt. He developed the project, but residents are still on the hook for their mortgages despite the now unsafe or even unlivable conditions of many Make It Right homes. “Everyone thinks that Brad Pitt swooped in with a cape on and gave everybody free houses, and now they’re ungrateful people who got something for nothing and they’re complaining. That’s not true,” he says. “All of these people have mortgages. This is the biggest purchase they’ll ever make.”
    On September 18 2018, Make It Right reportedly filed a lawsuit against John C. Williams, the New Orleans architect they hired to fulfill the plans and blueprints of their star designers. In a statement to People, Make It Right said it “has filed a lawsuit against its former executive architect, John Williams, and his firm for monetary damages to remediate and repair affected homes in the Lower [Ninth] Ward of New Orleans, arising from his engagement with the Foundation.”
    They continued, “Make It Right continues to work proactively with homeowners in the Lower [Ninth] Ward, and we will make no further comment on the case at this time.” The Make It Right foundation did not respond to Architectural Digest’s requests for comment.

    For his part, Pitt acknowledged that he and the foundation had no idea how difficult their project would be. "We went into it incredibly naive," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in August 2015, on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. "Just thinking we can build homes—how hard is that?—and not understanding forgivable loan structures and family financial counseling and getting the rights to lots and HUD grants and so on and so forth. So it's been a big learning curve."
    Neal Morris is the principal at Redmellon Restoration and Development, a socially minded development firm in New Orleans, and a veteran of all the complexities Pitt was likely unaware of. While it is indeed complicated, he was able to provide some broad strokes. “As a private developer who develops affordable housing, one has to avail oneself of subsidies in order to make affordable housing work. These subsidies are ultimately tied to a private market, right? You have to have someone willing to purchase that tax credit,” Morris explains.
    “Make It Right was in a unique situation, because they had an enormous amount of goodwill from everyone in the country [who] wanted to help New Orleans after the storm,” he continues. “And they had the power of Brad Pitt’s celebrity, with his passion—and by all accounts, he’s a good guy—and with his network of people, with their ability to fundraise. So that project was not constrained by any of the normal things that might constrain, or act as a check, on projects like that.”
    In the dazed months and even years after Katrina, when 70 percent of the housing in New Orleans was damaged, there was a deluge of out-of-state developers and contractors as well as plenty of do-gooder types who wanted to help out.
    “I would have to say that there was just so much activity that I think it was very, very hard to regulate,” says Oji Alexander, the executive director of Home by Hand, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing in New Orleans. “Because there was this fight between [needing] to move quickly [and] [getting] people back into their homes quickly. But the risk you run there is, some things happen in that context [that] may go unchecked.”
    An indication of just how unchecked some processes were: Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans from 2002 to 2010—before,during, and after the hurricane—was indicted in January 2013 on 21 counts of corruption related to kickbacks he received from contractors who came into the city post-Katrina. He was convicted on 20 of the charges in February 2014 and is currently serving 10 years in a federal prison in Texas.
    Before Alexander joined Home by Hand, he was a project manager for an effort very similar to Pitt’s. Leonard Riggio, the founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble, was moved by the Katrina devastation and with his wife, Louise, pledged $20 million to build 100 houses through a foundation called Project Home Again. So, when faced with the same complicated community and loan structures, why did their homes, or the ones built by Habitat for Humanity, apparently succeed, when Pitt and Make It Right struggled so spectacularly?
    “[The Riggios], they took a different approach [...] where they didn't have necessarily a hard stance on We're going to have to hit these energy-efficiency measuresor We're going to try to hit these benchmarks. It was Let's find a builder-friendly house, so we keep the costs down so that our resources, the most possible resources, are actually going to families,” Alexander explains. Structures were simpler, buyers were required to undergo homeownership training, and mortgages would be forgiven after five years via a homeownership swap agreement.
    “We did everything we could to make sure that our homeowners would be successful,” he says. “I've actually worked with at least one of the architects who worked with Brad Pitt’s project. We've worked with some of the builders. I can tell you about the things that I know did work for us, and it was the KISS approach: Keep it simple.”
    Another theory for what may have led to the project’s ruin is the excess of ambition. Pitt gathered some of the world’s best architects to create rows of eye-popping, brightly colored designs. “You have designers who were really bright folks from all over the country who were thinking very, very big and maybe in the process lost sight. . . .here are reasons why people build things in a certain way in a certain place,” Morris says. “New Orleans is so special, the way we have to do our buildings. But any place has a local architectural vernacular. Things are done in a certain way with certain materials, because of where they are and what their climate is.”
    Architectural Digest reached out to several of the architects who contributed designs and did not receive a response.
    Then there are the materials themselves, and the assembly of those materials. “That’s it, construction from start to bottom,” says Austin, the attorney in the residents’ suit. “I think an argument could be made that some of the materials they chose were imprudent [but] efficient materials. So you have bad design on some poor materials.”


    An aerial view of the Lower Ninth Ward, where Make It Right built its homes.
    Photo: Mario Tama via Getty
    In fact, Make It Right has already acknowledged the problems with the materials they chose. While they began construction of their houses in 2008, by 2010 construction crews reportedly noticed that the specialty lumber they had selected for its added silicon and supposed ability to resist rot, TimberSIL, was indeed already mildewing. They sued the manufacturer in 2015 for nearly $500,000, which was the alleged cost of replacing the rotting decks on 39 of the 109 houses they had built by that point. The suit was reportedly settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017.
    While the suit was underway at the time of his 2015 interview with the Times-Picayune, Pitt did not appear to reference it in the article. "What we have learned, which was the original premise, is that you do not have to build low-income housing with the cheapest materials that keep families in a poverty trap," he said instead. "Whether that be running up high utility bills or with toxic materials that run up your doctor bills. It doesn't have to be that way."
    Austin says he suspects that in those years while Make It Right was apparently not responsive to the persistent phone calls from many residents, they could have been potentially prolonging the possibility of getting sued under the New House Warranty Act.
    The act covers “a five-year period where basically the builder, the original person who built it, says your home will be free from any major structural damages or major structural defects, and major structural defects that are due to noncompliance with building standards and noncompliance with good building materials,” says Sally Brown Richardson, an associate professor of property law at Tulane University in New Orleans, speculating that the suit would likely pursue a claim of fraud instead.
    Indeed, the suit alleges not only breach of contract but also fraud, unfair trade practices, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
    Plus, there’s the issue of the nondisclosure agreements, and the documents that Make It Right staffers allegedly requested residents sign that bounded them to arbitration if they had any issues with the home. Austin plans to argue residents were pressured into signing these documents, rendering them null.
    “If you’re sitting there and your house is catching on fire because of electrical issues, you’re like, ‘Sure, I’ll sign whatever!’” Austin says. “It’s not a real bargain. You want your work done.”
    While everyone whom Architectural Digestspoke with for this story was quick to emphasize their belief in Make It Right’s good intentions and the quality of Pitt’s character, the alleged distribution of NDAs to residents who were in duress remains a distasteful detail.
    “It may be legally enforceable, and my guess is that it is,” Richardson says.

    Seven weeks after the suit was filed, on October 25, the case was moved to federal court. The request came from three of the defendants, all of whom have served as executives of the foundation, as they argued that the alleged damages would exceed $5 million and thus require federal jurisdiction. On November 20, 2018, Pitt’s lawyers reportedly filed a motion to dismiss claims against Pitt and remove him from the lawsuit, arguing that he can’t be held personally responsible for the buildings’ construction.
    The class-action suit has once again shone a spotlight on the Lower Ninth Ward, which has spent the last decade as an attraction for visitors seeking disaster porn. The candy-colored houses from Make It Right stood out among the blight, a tourist site unto themselves. “It’s like, everyone was coming to see them when they first built,” Claiborne says. “Now that they’re falling apart, they’re making the news, everyone's coming to see the situation.”
    Though she’s past the age when she planned to retire, Claiborne says she’s unable to stop working now because her family’s finances are stuck in limbo. “I’m just tired. I don’t know how everybody else feels, but I’m tired. I just want things to get better for us,” she says.
    She’s keen to keep fighting, however. “I have to provide for myself, because nobody else will,” she says. “I’m a praying person, but I need to work on things myself. God can only do so much.”

    https://www.architecturaldigest.com/...atrina-lawsuit







    I dont don’t really know what to think about this - obviously there are inherent issues with stuff like the silicone-impregnated wood that isn’t supposed to rot - but does.
    But I know first hand that if someone has always rented they don’t always “get” that once you own, the maintenance is down to you... and I don’t understand how much is due to shoddy design & manufacturing, how much is due to the issues that would naturally occur with the humidity etc and how much is lack of maintenance.

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    "We were naive", Pitt says....the understatement of the decade. I'm thinking that his heart was in the right place, but he didn't really have any bureaucracy-savvy people on his team.

    I would have used old shipping containers myself - cheap to buy, sustainable and using them helps the environment.
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    Honestly I remember reading about this when he started and thinking he doesn't know what he is doing. Build affordable housing, yes. Try to improve sustainability or durability, sure, if you can. But the project always read like it was about proving something versus helping people. No doubt he wanted to do both but it reeked of wealthy men (Pitt and architects) coming to show the po' folks how it's done. Instead of "what do these people need and how can we help them meet those needs."

    I always thought he should have just teamed up with Habitat.
    greysfang, Waterslide and BITTER like this.
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    But - who else was doing anything
    and they should have employed experienced construction project managers - it’s not like Pitt was doing it all himself.

    Quote Originally Posted by BITTER View Post
    "We were naive", Pitt says....the understatement of the decade. I'm thinking that his heart was in the right place, but he didn't really have any bureaucracy-savvy people on his team.

    I would have used old shipping containers myself - cheap to buy, sustainable and using them helps the environment.
    Useless fact of the day - there is (or was last year) a world-wide shortage of shipping containers.

    But no doubt this wouldn’t have been an acceptable solution either.
    The photos of where the houses were already built with empty plots was an eye opener to me. And how come they have only built 100 houses in 10 years..... so many questions.

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    I didn't know there was a shortage of shipping containers...that's interesting to me, actually. They just seem literally to be piled up, but I suppose they're piled up because businesses are using them...Never thought about it before.

    This kind of reminds me of that Extreme Home Makeover show. It seemed like a lot of great ideas, but then people were unhappy in the long run and claimed things weren't made that great. It also seems like a lot of houses - no matter what size they are - are made cheaply these days.

    As for Brad, he was pretty annoying back then, or at least I seem to remember him going around as a wannabe architect and it was kind of pathetic. His heart was probably in the right place, but this is also a mess.
    "AND WHEN YOU BECAME DENISE, I TOLD ALL YOUR COLLEAGUES, THOSE CLOWN COMICS, TO FIX THEIR HEARTS OR DIE."

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    Brad takes on the persona of whoever he is with at the time - it's known. Angelina was about helping people in need, so he became like her.
    "To be [black] in this country and to be relativity conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time." ~ James Baldwin

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