After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, a foundation created by actor Brad Pitt stepped in to help with rebuilding efforts in a neighborhood that had been particularly hard hit. The result was more than 100 new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward built to be both affordable and environmentally friendly.
Welcomed by displaced homeowners as a godsend, the houses have since developed a range of problems, says Ron Austin, a local attorney. And because the problems have so far gone unresolved, Austin says he will take Pitt’s Make It Right foundation to court.
In all, Austin said in a telephone call, the foundation built 109 houses for homeowners on lots they already owned. They bought the houses through the foundation with financing that did not require a down payment. But a number of homeowners are now holding mortgages of between $150,000 and $200,000, Austin said.
Earlier reports found that the TimberSIL treated lumber used on some decks and exterior stairs was rotting just a few years after it was installed. That problem prompted a lawsuit filed by the foundation against TimberSIL’s manufacturer.
Problems now are apparently more extensive. Asked what was wrong with the houses, Austin listed a “plethora of issues,” involving porches, HVAC and electrical systems, and general construction shortcomings. Austin said one or two of the houses have been torn down.
“Personally I am grateful to Brad Pitt for stepping up,” Austin said. “All of my clients are grateful to Brad Pitt for stepping up and helping. The other thing that needs to be noted is that these people are paying mortgages,” Austin continued. “They didn’t get anything for free. Essentially, they just want their homes fixed. There is nowhere to turn. Their calls have gone unanswered. These people are at their wits’ end.”
Austin would not say how many people had signed on to the lawsuit other than to say it was a “representative portion of the neighborhood — significant enough to justify bringing a suit.” He said that the lawsuit would be filed “very soon.”
Austin said there was a lot of contact between homeowners and the foundation early on, but not much recently.
GBA left a message with the foundation, which was not returned.
Problems elsewhere for the foundation
Make It Right’s problems are not limited to New Orleans, according to a report posted at Fast Company. The website said that a modular home installer filed a lawsuit against the foundation after it was not paid for a number of homes that the foundation developed on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.
The suit claimed breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and failure to honor an arbitration agreement, a 2017 story from Courthouse News Service said. The 20 energy-efficient homes were finally constructed, but the foundation and its subsidiaries refused to pay the installer for a third of the $430,000 project. The Native American tribes for which the houses were build ended up footing a $2.6 million bill for foundations and installing water and sewer lines.
Courthouse News suggested that a number of management departures at the foundation in 2016 may be partly to blame. They included CEO Tom Darden and board Chairman Samuel Whitt, who approached Pitt in 2007 with the idea of creating the foundation.
The houses at Fort Peck ended up costing $283,000 each in an area where the average home value is $50,000. Qualifying families got subsidized loans to rent or own them. The same report said that the houses in New Orleans cost $315,000 each.