In the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, actor and celebrity Brad Pitt rose as an unlikely savior in New Orleans. His nonprofit housing foundation, Make It Right, stepped in to help rehabilitate the badly devastated Lower Ninth Ward with the development of more than 100 modular and affordable homes. Billed as energy-efficient, LEED Platinum-certified structures designed by star architects including Frank Gehry, David Adjaye, and others—and bolstered by the support of fellow celebrities, from Oprah to Ellen Degeneres—the ambitious philanthropic undertaking was even awarded a 2016 National Design Award by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, among the design industry’s highest honors.
Now, more than a decade on, Pitt’s foundation faces thorny complaints and the threat of a new lawsuit from residents of more than two dozen of those homes. “Essentially, Make It Right was making a lot of promises to come back and fix the homes that they initially sold these people and have failed to do so. We have some people who have gotten sick, or we believe to be sick,” attorney Ron Austin, who is filing the lawsuit on behalf of residents, told local New Orleans news station WWL-TV earlier this week.
Austin points to a host of structural flaws, including damaged roofs, porches, steps, and infrastructure, as well as health issues stemming from issues such as mold contamination.
One owner of a Make It Right home, Nola Verrett, previously told Radar in 2013 that in her house, “the wood turned gray and it was also black. Also some parts it was buckling and it had mushrooms growing out of it. Different neighborhoods saw it, too.”
The announcement from Austin, who is reported to be in the process of filing the lawsuit in the next few weeks, is only the latest of legal scuffles to hit Make It Right. Reports of rotting structures began to surface as early as 2014, attributed to the Make It Right’s use of TimberSIL, a glass-infused wood product that is touted for its non-toxic, waterproof, and durable composition, but which had proven unable to withstand New Orleans’ notoriously moist climate. (Make It Right filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the wood manufacturer in 2015, as a result, though the settlement of that case remains unclear.) Last February, modular home installer Method Homes also filed a lawsuit against Make It Right, after failing to receive a payment for a batch of homes it had helped develop on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation.
Much of the foundation’s troubles likely stem from a lack of leadership, as Make It Right’s CEO Tom Darden, along with several of its board of directors, including its former Director of Innovations, Tim Duggan, were reported to have exited in 2016. To date, neither position appears to be filled on Make It Right’s staff page, nor are they listed on its current job listings page.
“Honestly, [the foundation] has been really been off the radar for a few years now, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that the organization right now is sort of rudderless. I think it’s a little bit of a zombie organization. No one’s maintaining it,” says Martin Pedersen, founder of the New Orleans–based architecture nonprofit, Common Edge. “You have to do a lot of maintenance on any house in New Orleans, because it rains 70 inches a year, and the ground is sinking beneath every house in New Orleans, and not just Make It Right houses. The fancy houses in the Garden District? Guess what? Those are sinking too. That’s just a fact of life in New Orleans.”
Make It Right was born of an undeniably good idea—to create green housing in a city that needed to rethink its approach to the built environment in the face of continual climate change.”I think what [the foundation] did, at the time it did it, was really important. . .” Pedersen says. Yet as some residents of Make It Right homes have voiced, well-meaning efforts can fall short of solving complex, systemic problems on a long-term basis. It’s a cautionary tale of sorts: As cities and organizations elsewhere prepare for extreme weather and climate change, they would do well to remember that investing in neighborhoods and housing is an ongoing commitment to those who inhabit them.
Make it Right has not responded to Fast Company‘s request for comment.