The lesson of this debacle is a timeless one for philanthropy—ask the poor what they want, don’t just give them what you think they should have.
It’s common for celebrities wanting to build their brands to do something charitable. So Brad Pitt, after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, didn’t just send money to New Orleans; he created the Make It Right foundation in 2007 and vowed to build homes in New Orleans. His foundation ended up raising $26 million and built 109 homes in the poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward.
Long-time Lower Ninth Ward resident Gloria Guy told the New Republic in 2013 that most politicians did nothing to help the poor in New Orleans, and Prince Charles flew over the ward in a helicopter and refused to land. “The only person who came through here and worked with the people,” she said, “was Brad Pitt.”
The houses formed a small neighborhood and attracted many visitors, in part because such superstar architects as Frank Gehry and Sir David Adjaye planned the houses.
But now the lawsuits have started.
In June a mold-infested house on Derbigny Street built by Make It Right was torn down. A video shot by New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Doug McCash shows the destruction.
“Where is Mr. Pitt?” resident Doris Wyman asked as the Derbigny Street residence was being torn down. “I wonder, if he saw that house, what would be the first words out of his mouth?”
In September, two Lower Ninth Ward residents sued Brad Pitt and Make It Right and hoped to turn their lawsuit into a class-action suit. Lloyd Francis and Jennifer Decuir charged that Make It Right used shoddy materials in building their homes, and when residents complained, they were told that repairs would only be made if they signed nondisclosure agreements that also required disputes to be subject to binding arbitration. They said residents weren’t being told what rights they were signing away with these documents. They also noted that in their 2013 Form 990, Make It Right had said it spent $4.3 million on “warranty and repair liabilities.”
Make It Right first responded by suing the architect of record, John C. Williams. Make It Right claimed that Williams had been paid $4 million by them over the years. Williams said he donated his time for two years, and “to now be confronted with this baseless lawsuit is shocking and insulting and we intend to prove we were not at fault.”
The most recent development took place last month, when lawyers representing Brad Pitt asked him to be removed from the lawsuit. Pitt’s lawyers say that Pitt shouldn’t be blamed for the home construction and shouldn’t be held responsible for fraud. Pitt has not made a public comment about Make It Right since 2015. On the Make It Right website, a June 2015 statement from Pitt said “We will keep building as long as we have families who need help and donors who believe in our work.”
Part of the problem is that these homes aren’t just ordinary homes. They have solar panels. They use environmentally friendly paint and a form of concrete that environmentalists like called “pervious concrete.” The Make It Right lists in great detail every product they used.
But the homeowners suing Make it Right say that one product the builders used was TimberSIL, a form of wood that wasn’t chemically treated. They say that 36 of the 109 homes had rotting decks that had to be replaced because TimberSIL didn’t work in New Orleans’s humid climate. Other homeowners say that the architects who designed their homes used flat roofs, which do little to protect houses against relentless rain.
The thing is that while residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were happy to have Brad Pitt’s help, no one asked for ultra-fancy homes made from pervious concrete and designed by Sir David Adjaye, famous for building the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They just want sturdy places to live.
Laura Paul of the group Lower Nine told the New Republic, “We don’t do Platinum LEED certified, Frank Gehry has not designed a single home for us and never will, but we put 60 families back into their homes.” Their total, according to their website, is now up to 87, and Lower Nine’s budget is a fraction of Make It Right’s.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear how many people still work for Make It Right. An NBC News investigation in September found that Make It Right closed its offices in downtown New Orleans and its staff of less than six was based in a trailer in the Lower Ninth Ward. NBC did get a statement from Brad Pitt through a spokesperson where Pitt said, “I have total faith on our team on the ground to see this through.”
Brad Pitt’s charitable commitment is admirable. But surely it would have been better to have asked the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward what sorts of homes they wanted instead of giving them what they thought they deserved?
The lesson of the Make it Right debacle is a timeless one for philanthropy—ask the poor what they want, don't just give them what you think they should have.
(Hat tip: Nonprofit Quarterly)