The Problem With Brad Pitt’s New Orleans Rescue Effort

90 homes and $45 million dollars later, the Make It Right Foundation is struggling to sell their vision of the Lower Ninth Ward.

From an urban planning perspective, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans is experiencing the same problem as many depopulating cities in America--albeit at a rapidly accelerated pace. The immediate evacuation of huge swathes of the city has led to a long, slow fight about how and where to repopulate, akin to the dilemma faced by cities like Detroit. In each case, efforts by outsiders to finance unwieldy developments have resulted in problems for city governments and on-the-ground advocates.

A piece in the New Republic, ("If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come") explores the legacy of Brad Pitt’s celebrity charity vehicle, the Make It Right Foundation, which has built 90 homes at an average cost of $400,000 a piece in the “largely barren moonscape” of the Ninth Ward. The problem is that not enough people have wanted to move back. Lydia Depillis reports:

The neighborhood doesn’t have enough residents to attract many stores and services, and prospective buyers end up elsewhere because the neighborhood doesn’t have enough stores and services. So about 90 households, primarily elderly people like Guy, are living in futuristic homes that most Americans would covet, and yet there’s not a supermarket--or even a fast food restaurant--for miles.

As a result, the city is obligated to spend millions providing services to neighborhoods of roughly 2,000, when other neighborhoods that have repopulated naturally are desperately in need. One solution could have been mixed-used or multifamily dwellings, a proposal that was rejected by the community. Another alternative would have been to pour the money into communities that are rebounding on their own--or those that are above the waterline, at least.

There’s a reason, though, why such cold, hard logic hasn’t yet prevailed in this most hard hit of New Orleans neighborhoods: It’s all too easy to be won over by the spirit of the Lower Ninth, the passion of the people who did return. It may not be the most efficient use of public resources, and no amount of trying may bring in the kind of retail amenities that make places comfortable to live. … For those who were going to move back no matter what the city told them, perhaps they at least deserve enough basic public services to hang on.

It’s a tough situation to parse: Make It Right can’t be faulted for wanting to help, the Ninth Ward residents can’t be faulted for wanting to return to their homes, yet the project is draining the city’s coffers to the detriment of other neighborhoods. The Make It Right homes themselves seem destined to languish. Eventually, the development will likely become the sort of architectural anomaly that architecture students tour, cameras in hand--a perfect capsule of late '00s architectural culture that valued big gestures over common sense.

Read the full story here.

Add New Comment

12 Comments

  • AhContraire

    Habitat for Humanity built their 500th home just a little while ago.

    However, all of these homes in the New Orleans Area are in a place with ZERO JOBS and the $10/hr one are really really hard to come by.

    So, all you have are elderly poor who are on fixed income who most likely are baby sitting the dysfunctional family that created these babies.  Lots of ENABLEMENT and PROMOTION of IRRESPONSIBILITY in that culture and in that part of town...which has led to kids not knowing who their daddy is and pants on the ground culture.

    It would have been better, at least for that Big Easy and ENABLEMENT and PROMOTION of IRRESPONSIBILITY culture, to build houses in THRIVING areas outside Louisiana and definitely NOT in groups or no where next to each other as that also promotes enablement and goes against the mixed income philosophy where you don't want the poor around more poor. You really don't want the poor talking or living next to other poor.

  • 2disgustedyeah1

    As a former resident in the lower ninth ward; I would like to say the Brad Pitt homes are not the traditional style homes relative to pre-Katrina. I would think that the resident re-development advisors would have built more traditional houses raised to the recommended FEMA GUIDELINES and taken the former resident input .  Needless to say; HURRICANE KATRINA wasn't the first major hurricane to destroy the Lower Ninth Ward what about Hurricane Betsy.  The only difference is that this time the entire city was destroyed.  Not just a small neighborhood of Black residents 
    left the area, most residents got a taste of better life elsewhere in progressive America and left here for  the lack of better opportunity right here in New Orleans.  

    Lastly, I remember the close knit neighborhood pre Katrina.. The new houses just don't look like home.  Furthermore, I would agree with the writer ,,where are the basic necessities????   

  • Julia M.

    The New Republic article uses inaccurate figures. It is $24 million. It is not $45 million. That inaccuracy alone undermines the entire article. The cost per house started high and lessened as the project built more homes and made appropriate changes to designs and building practices. The cost per house was lowered to between $170,000 and $220,000.

    Philosophically there will never be a correct or true answer to whether those residents should have rebuilt in their old neighborhood. But it was THEIR neighborhood and it was THEIR property. In a nation that usually treasures the rights of private property you'd think that these residents would be respected for wanting to exercise those very rights.

    It's just all too fashionable to try to take down those big names trying to help those who are too often on the short end of the stick. Sloppy research and reporting aside, TNR clearly had a headline grabbing agenda from the get go.

  • sunflower

    I don't think he was being a superhero. I think he went into this with good intentions but it just didn't come out right. IF everyone was trying to go back and live in these homes, different story. I am glad he tried to help. This idea didn't work out. Maybe other ones will.

  • WhitNYC

    Before everyone piles on the New Republic bandwagon, you should at least take a look at Make It Right's response. They posted a long response to the New Republic on their website, which is pretty great. It looks like the piece is one-sided and full of inaccuracies, some of them pretty major like the cost of the homes...  Way to go, guys.  http://makeitright.org/new-orl...

  • WhitNYC

    Before everyone piles on to the New Republic bandwagon, you should at least take a look at MIR's response. They posted a comment to New Republic and a long response on their website. It looks like that piece is one-sided and full of inaccuracies, some of them pretty major like the cost of the homes... http://makeitright.org/new-orl...

  • NOLA Darling

    How ironic, after years of writing glowing articles about the great work MIR was doing in New Orleans, publications like New Republic and Fast Company finally realized that the economic investment required by others to make MIR's vision work didn't make sense. As someone in working in real estate and community development, my colleagues and have been having this conversation for years and people just scoffed at us. A $400,000 home costs a lot more to insure and maintain, than a $150,000 one, and putting people of modest means in these expensive homes, regardless of the upfront subsidy, was a bad idea and the insurance and property tax billsbeing paid by those homeowners further proves it. Unfortunately, the city followed MIR's bad investment by building a new school and park in an otherwise empty neighborhood, diverting resources that could have gone to more populated neighborhoods that don't haveany schools or parks.

  • Brett

    It's not ironic, it's disappointing. Gloating with fellow realtors about the unsustainable practices of an organization trying to help rebuild is a bit short-sighted for visionaries such as yourself. Now that's ironic.

  • Jennifer

    I know exactly what you are talking about. I moved away from NOLA after Hurricane Katrina and I know nothing about real estate and knew this was a dumb idea. Common sense says that no one will buy expensive housing in a flood zone and also in a poor city. Even people who have money like to save money. Also no one wants to say they live in the 9th ward. That area has a terrible reputation. It happened because Brad Pitt wanted it to happen. It really irritated me that he was swooping in with his super hero celebrity cape to rescue New Orleans with this stupid idea and city officials bought in to it or they where afraid to say no. I knew we would be reading articles about this.