Make It Right settles with families in home-rebuilding initiative. Photo credit: Create Her Stock/ Neosha Gardner

When green goes bad. Buyers of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation homes agree to $20.5 million settlement

On the surface, Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation appeared to be pure goodwill. The lawsuit waged by purchasers of homes in his program show how Katrina survivors and New Orleans were testing grounds for wayward social enterprising.

One hundred seven New Orleans families who are Hurricane Katrina survivors will be eligible to receive compensation in a preliminary $20.5 million settlement with silver screen actor, Brad Pitt, and his now defunct, The Make it Right Foundation.

If a civil district judge approves the settlement agreement on December 9, each claimant will receive a $25,000 reimbursement for costs in repairs accrued over time. The remaining money will be divided to address further repairs on houses that owners said began to crumble not long after they moved in.

Attorney Ron Lewis who represented the families in the class action lawsuit told the Guardian that claimants are “relieved and grateful.”

The lawsuit, initially launched by two homeowners in 2018, said that the homes they purchased from Make It Right were structurally unsound. They were bought as part of the organization’s mission to provide environmentally-friendly, tech-forward, innovative and aesthetically appealing, yet affordable housing to those displaced by the 2005 major Hurricane Katrina storm.

After the natural disaster dislocated millions of residents, those who wanted to return found it difficult due to slow recovery efforts, and the significant spike in homes that shot up 46 percent in some parishes. Pitt’s foundation offered a solution. The average cost of the Make It Right homes were $150,000, but went upwards to $180,000. An added benefit is that they would be storm resistant and ecologically adept.

“We were going to be saving a lot on our electricity. It was storm protected. They [were] telling us stuff,” told Alfreda Claiborne to Architectural Digest in 2018. “The impression we were under, the way the houses were built, if a storm did come, it would float.”

That was far from the truth. When it rained, it poured in the homes. The suit alleged that the faulty designs and subpar materials were at the heart of the deteriorating homes. Within a short time, homeowners discovered leaks in their abodes. Gradually growing black mold and rotting wood from experimental timber crept up like wild fungi within the structures. Also, residents reported termite infestation, shoddy plumbing and defective electrical circuitry along with other issues.

When owners alerted the foundation as early as 2013, the repairs that were made were cosmetic. Then homeowners’ calls largely went unanswered until not returned at all. Eventually, it was difficult to locate Make It Right, a company formed in Delaware with taxes filed between North Carolina and Louisiana. 

In total, the revenue generated by the organization in its 10 years of operation was $124,278,759. Most of the Make It Right money earned was through grants, donations and program services according to its tax filings published by ProPublica. All the while, the homes’ constructions took about $26.8 million to make. Plus, they were not free, but purchased.

In a release concerning the settlement, Pitt thanked Global Green USA, a supposedly, sustainable-forward organization for agreeing to disburse the $20.5 million to “to rectify defects in the original as built conditions of homes.” An organization co-founded by the late Russian president, Mikael Gorbochav, Global Green partnered with Pitt to carry out the experimental architectural designs for the Make It Right building projects located in the Lower Ninth Ward of the City from 2008 to 2016. 

Due to the families being some of the most economically vulnerable in the city, many had to live in the environmental hazards sold to them by Make It Right.

“You’re talking about a group of people who didn’t have an option to move and buy or rent a second home,” said Lewis. “This was their life savings and they were living in something that was deteriorating quickly around them.”

While Make It Right failed at delivering its promises to the families with faulty housing fabrications, Pitt built much of his philanthropic name off of the project. Enjoying the release of Bullet Train, another top-billed movie earlier this month, Pitt, who initially denied any wrongdoing, has been recognized for many years as a trailblazer who promoted socially good corporations employing green technology. Even after his humanitarian-defining project died, his name carries good faith. 

On the other hand, New Orleans residents almost lost their religion as they were dealt another challenge in attempting to regain some footing in normalcy after their lives were swept away in storm waters 17 years ago.

Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt at a public appearance for Clinton Global Initiative-THU on September 24, 2009 at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, New York, NY. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Everett Collection

In 2007, when Pitt saw slow recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, he leveraged his celebrity and nascent philanthropic personality to assist in rebuilding his newly declared city-home. 

Pitt’s pledge through a newfangled company—The Make It Right Foundation with its main partner Global Green—was to erect 150 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward in a short time. A total of 109 were completed. The dwellings would be sold to those who lost their residences in the storm. 

To add flair to the giving, Global Green and Pitt held a design competition. Pitt said it was to “help the rebuilding effort in areas that have difficulty rebuilding” and “advance the cause of green design” in a way that provided a template for the City and its residents to “rebuild intelligently.” For more emphasis on his mission, he decided to rehabilitate parts of New Orleans that experienced the most devastation, the Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Nine as it is popularly called, was under up to 12 feet of water when the levees failed after flooding. 

The restitching New Orleans was to be the face of Global Green’s “Healthy Homes, Smart Neighborhoods.” The design competition drew over 100 top designers around the world. More impressive was the selection committee—Pritzker Award Winner Thom Mayne, principle at Morphosis Architects (Santa Monica, CA); Pam Dashiell (deceased), past-president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (New Orleans, LA); Lauren Anderson, then executive Director for the Neighborhood Housing Service of New Orleans, Inc. (now executive director at Idealist.org); Keith Butler, investment banker and real estate developer (New Orleans & New York); William Morrish, then Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture School of Architecture, University of Virginia (now at The New School Parsons in New York, NY); Walter J. Hood, Principal, Hood Design (Oakland CA), Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA); Marion Weiss, Principal, Weiss/Manfredi Architects, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania; David Orr, Chair, Environmental Studies Program (Oberlin College, OH); and Yolande Daniels, Co-Founder, Studio Sumo (New York, NY), and Matt Petersen, then President of Global Green USA (now president of LA Incubator).

In a release by Global Green, the six finalists’ designs “express[ed] a clear understanding of the need to address rising electricity and energy costs and mounting health problems caused by exposure to unhealthy building practices.” Overall, the residences would be smart homes as well as green.

Generating interest from the design and architecture industries, Pitt also pulled on his community of A-listers. The likes of Ellen Degeneres, a native-New Orleanian, visited the Lower Ninth Ward to show her support. On March 10, 2012, the pair hosted a fundraiser, “A Night to Make It Right,” dinner. At the affair, Emeril Legasse and John Besh served as the chefs, while celebrities such as Drew Brees, Randy Jackson, Rihanna, Sheryl Crow, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. John, performed and attended. The event raised $5 million.

To name more, Seal, Oprah, Beyonce and Kanye, the one-name wanders have also poured their support into Make It Right. 

Pitt even won backers such as Goldman Sachs to pour money into Make It Right’s coffers. Added to the philanthropic fanfare, President Barack Obama went on a tour with Pitt after several homes were built in 2008. In 2009, he was recognized at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s philanthropic summit, the Clinton Global Initiative by Green Building Council.

Whether intentional or not, New Orleans home buyers of the Make It Right initiative became the backdrop to Pitt. Over the years, he won more fanfare, and eventually created a template of celebrity housing projects as social enterprises. In turn, he became the cause.

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Though Pitt’s intentions might have been in goodwill, the consistent undertone was that of a white savior. New Orleans, a predominantly Black metropolis, has been represented by the media, as a blighted city with less than desirable citizens.

During the 2005 crisis, images of families stuck on rooftops were repeatedly looped by the press. Overriding frames regurgitated by the press reported abandoned bodies covered in white cloth as thousands crowded in the Superdome sports arena begging for help. Included in the unsavory and racialized representations were the labeling of hungry people searching desperately for food as looters and criminals.

Intensifying negative portrayals was the constant recycling of then Mayor Ray Nagin’s logistics fiascoes to get more residents out of the city before the hurricane. Added were growing racial tensions with his remarks after the floods when he said at an MLK observance in 2006 that the city would be a “chocolate New Orleans at the end of the day.” Later in 2014, Nagin was convicted on 20 counts ranging from bribery and money laundering to taking money under the table for post-Katrina construction projects.

More damning was the delayed response by then President George W. Bush. He remained on vacation in Texas as Hurricane Katrina thwacked the Gulf Coast. Footage showed him teeing up on a golf course while those in the next state died of dehydration, heat stroke and other preventable issues.

On his return to Washington D.C., Bush flew over New Orleans without as much as slowing down or stopping to view the damage or distressed cityfolk. Increasing his lackluster display, he delayed sending troops and emergency assistance to those trapped.

Throughout the post-hurricane tragedy, little was told about white neighboring towns drawing guns on New Orleanians who attempted to escape by foot. Or, the white districts in the area that were unaffected by storm waters, but had an ample supply of private, heavily armed security to ensure non-neighbors—the Black ones—never entered the area.

In perfect timing, the emergence of Pitt occurred when many in the city believed the local government was neutered, and the federal government had completely forgotten them. Snapshots of him walking through the bare corridors of the Lower Ninth Ward presented the appearance of a well-polished hero, a Christ-like figure.

His penchant for making grand entrances came easily because of his profession. Along with his then wife, Angelina Jolie, who would allow their children to play in the Make It Right playground, the pair seemed to offer an angelic presence to a city in the depths of chaos and depression. That same playground turned into an abandoned lot still owned today by a Make It Right subsidiary.

Because of Pitt’s charitable persona, when complaints from homebuyers began to get louder, they never received the same energy from the press. While their world crumbled, Pitt’s kept thriving. In some arenas, his culpability was forgiven

“Bad things happen to good people, even when they trying to help the world. Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation being sued for shoddy homes. #braddpitt #MakeItRightFoundation”  tweeted a Pitt supporter.

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After some years of Pitt pressuring local administrations to put more resources into building the infrastructure in the Lower Nine, another problem arose. The lumber employed in projects showed rapidly increasing levels of rot beyond repair. 

Construction of Make It Right homes began in 2008. By 2010, building crews discovered that the chemical free wood, TimberSIL, began to decompose. A yellow pine manufactured using silicone and heat, TimberSIL did not prevent decay, but actually increased it. But, Make It Right would not know that because the lumber was untested. 

Make It Right sued TimberSIL manufacturer for $500,000 in 2015 to replace the rotting patios on 39 of the homes. In 2017, the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount, and sold to a New York firm. By that time, purchasers of the Make It Right homes had been complaining for years about the worsening conditions of their home with some becoming inhabitable.

After the 2018 class action lawsuit was filed, Pitt’s attorney motioned for him to be dismissed from the complaint. They were denied. 

Also in 2018, Make It Right sued the project’s principal architect, John C. Williams for faulty design work that they said cost them $15 million. Following up, in 2021, the organization filed a complaint against Tom Darden III, and other former top officials in New Orleans Civil District Court, alleging Darden mismanaged the project for nine years, and deceived foundation leaders on the state of the organization and construction matters.

During the legal fist-o-cuff, Make It Right saw its most profitable year in 2016 by generating $32,564,380. It had reported to having won contracts to do work in Newark, New Jersey and Kansas. The organization closed down in 2018. At that time, Pitt was still a board member.

Make It Right houses surrounded by weeds built by Brad Pitt’s rebuilding project after Hurricane Katrina in the lower 9th ward. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Elliott Cowand Jr

Although New Orleanians weathered the storm when Make It Right did not, only about 37 percent of Lower Ninth Ward residents made it back home. Part of the issue was the lack of other amenities needed to develop a community like businesses and the fundamental presence of a grocery store. Nevertheless, the settlement announcement dredged up almost two decades of deep failures from government to charities, all felt profoundly by its most vulnerable citizens.

Still not fully rebuilt, New Orleans has seen its succession of political storms and climate disasters. More recently, the intersection of a weak economy and the pandemic is the latest, and perhaps, one of the hardest blows since Hurricane Katrina. Skyrocketing crime paralleled by severe poverty after COVD-19 has created more racial and wealth disparities.

“The spike in crime that we have experienced in this city during the pandemic is not a challenge any one agency can overcome alone,” said the NOLA’s Mayor LaToya Cantrell in a public safety meeting in early January with a local leadership team assembled to address the rise in crime. “In the days and months ahead, we will continue to work with all stakeholders — including the Courts, the DA, and OPSO—towards solutions that make our city safer.”

Mayor Cantrell pushed through Mardi Gras 2022. A holiday that is the biggest concentrated time the City grosses money, some blame what they see as poor leadership in her administration to handle the growing robberies, carjackings and gun-related offenses. So much so, a petition has been taken out to recall the two-term mayor. Belden ‘Noonie Man’ Batiste and former Cantrell social-media manager Eileen Carter cite mayoral ‘failure’ of leadership in the petition.

Another unspoken phenomena is how New Orleans became both experimental and exploitation grounds for non-profits. Much of them have come and gone, leaving the city in more disarray than it was before Hurricane Katrina. Make It Right’s long-term commitment makes it a more visible culprit.

To date, six homes were evacuated from the Make It Right construction due to dangerous levels of mold. Two new-builds had to be demolished by the city due to their public safety hazards. One of the two was requested by neighbors who said that abandoned homes became a health and safety nuisance.

“I would like to say that there is always a silver lining, but with this situation, I really don’t see a silver lining because it really changed a lot of my plans that I had for myself in life,” a disappointed Hanna explained to Fast Company. Hanna bought a home that has now been demolished.

A total of 33 properties are still owned by Make It Right in New Orleans. Currently, the Pitt social enterprise owes $15,000 in back property taxes and counting on 32 plots. Most of the lands held by New Orleans Housing LLC—a subsidiary of Make It Right—are the old office where the organization headquartered, a playground, one abandoned home, and the are vacant lots that have been poorly maintained over the years. 

In some neighborhoods, residents started to mow the lawn. Ironically, buyers of the Make It Right homes are some of those keeping up the abandoned lots when the foundation ran off with the bag. In a circle of irony, the most humanitarian were those who decided to stay and hold the many accountable for vapid promises.

Today, Pitt has found his way back to Los Angeles as his full-time home. His residence is far from the black mold still creeping up the walls of Make It Right domiciles. On the other hand, he lives in an expansive 5-home compound in Hollywood, right around the corner from Christopher Nolan.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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