Earlier this month, The Guardian ran a piece on the distressing condition of the Make It Right homes in New Orleans. Wilfred Chan’s article was based, in turn, on an essay written by Judith Keller, an international research scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, that appeared a few days earlier in The Conversation.
As someone who covered that project virtually from its inception—who moved to New Orleans, inspired in part by the energy of post-Katrina rebirth that the project symbolized, who met the co-founder of this website through the development—both pieces were deeply dispiriting. But, unfortunately, unsurprising: Things have been unraveling in that corner of the Lower Ninth Ward for a while. In September 2018, a group of residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Make It Right and, 11 days later, the nonprofit foundation countersued its architect of record, John C. Williams. According to news accounts, many of the homes in the development had serious issues. In April 2021, Make It Right (essentially Pitts’ attorneys, since the organization itself has fallen off the map) filed another lawsuit, this one against its former executive director, Tom Darden, accusing him of “mismanagement.”
Keller’s account rightly sidesteps all of the legal maneuvering and attempts to provide a report on the current condition of the houses. Eager for more details, I talked to her last week about her history with the development, her work in the Lower Ninth Ward, and her thoughts on exactly what went wrong.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JK: Judith Keller
How long have you been following the developments of Make It Right?
I started this work back in 2018. It was part of my master’s thesis, then I graduated in 2019 and went on to do my Ph.D., and that’s what brought me back to the U.S. for further research. And recently when I was in New Orleans, in November and December, I revisited the community and saw how the state of the homes had further deteriorated, and how things that had already been bad in 2018 were now even worse. That inspired me to write the article for The Conversation, to draw more attention to the situation.
How many residents did you talk to?
I interviewed 14 homeowners and then I talked to more people in the streets. It’s important to note that I stayed in the neighborhood when I was studying the development. It was a kind of ethnographic research project. I was living in one of the homes myself, both in 2018 and 2021. And so apart from the formal interviews, I also had a lot of informal conversations with residents, met people on the streets, walked around the neighborhood, and interacted with them.
How long did you live there?
It was a couple of weeks in 2018, and then about the same amount of time in 2021.
Who else did you talk to besides the residents?
I talked to representatives of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, as well as other representatives of the neighborhood organizations.
Did you talk to any of the architects who worked on the houses?
No. When I first started this project, in 2018, I reached out to some of the architects and never heard back. And now, actually, someone who worked for one of the firms reached out to me after they read my article.
Graft Architects. That might be something that I now can look into.
In the article you say the “vast majority” of homes are riddled with problems. Exactly how many? Because I was trying to do an unofficial scorecard: 109 houses were built, two demolished, six abandoned. So that leaves 101 buildings. How many would you say have serious problems?
That’s incorrect. There were 109 units in total, but three of them were duplexes. It was 106 buildings. And then out of those buildings, two were demolished, six have been abandoned. So out of the remaining 98, only a handful are in good or reasonably good shape. Most of the homes have had either structural repairs or renovations.
Some are completely remodeled. They had a flat roof that had to be replaced with a pitched one, or the entire pilings had to be cut out and redone. Some houses that had already received repairs now need additional repairs. And then there were a lot of homes that have never been inspected and that haven’t had any repairs done. They’re in bad shape and need help. I think about six homes remain in good shape.
Do you know which ones they are?
Yes, I do. I mapped the development, so I collected data on all the homes. I think it is fair to say that the homes designed by local architects performed better because some of the local building wisdom came into practice. [Editor’s note: Concordia was one of those local firms. Concordia’s founder, Steven Bingler, is co-founder of the Common Edge Collaborative.] In general, the homes that had flat roofs performed poorly. But it’s important to keep in mind that most of the homes are having problems; there are issues with most models. This is not always the architects’ fault, since some of the original plans were also changed by the architect on site, and then there were also mistakes made at the construction end.
What do you think happened? I knew a lot of the Make It Right people. They weren’t evil people. They seemed genuine in their concern for the neighborhood. So to be where we are now is so disheartening. What do you think happened?
So, first of all, it’s really important for me to say that I’m not pointing my finger at Make It Right or Brad Pitt. I don’t want to single out one person from Make It Right and say, they’re responsible. A number of things went wrong. One of them was that homes were not designed to properly withstand the climate in New Orleans. Some of the local features of the neighborhood were not taken into consideration. That was really crucial. They also used some experimental materials that didn’t work as they expected them to. And, again, I’m not saying that’s their fault. It was probably a good idea, at first, to try out something new. But when they don’t work, you have to own up to your mistakes and then try to fix those mistakes. That’s what I blame on Make It Right. When some of these issues started coming out, they were not transparent. They wanted homeowners to sign nondisclosure agreements. They did not ever come up with a formal apology. And I think that’s when Make It Right went really wrong. It’s not their fault that some of the structures did not work. It’s not their fault that some of the construction companies made mistakes. But it is their fault that they didn’t assume responsibility, didn’t show accountability, when the issues started to come out.
There was one wave of problems involving a kind of sustainable wood, TimberSIL, that they did fix. That material totally failed. When they were still an active organization, they repaired those houses. But more problems have ensued, and they seem to have disappeared as an organization at this point.
I think that the court case is going to bring out more details and, hopefully, shed some light on what happened and why the organization disappeared the way it did. It’s probably still gonna take some time to figure out what actually happened and to figure out who is responsible.
Do you have any sense of how many residents are involved in litigation?
I think it’s about 30 of them. Not all of the residents have engaged lawyers. There is a class-action suit; a number of residents are doing that. Other residents are trying to organize locally. They write letters to the mayor’s office, to the City Council members, and are trying to get people together and work as a community and support each other. They also have a prayer hour on Sunday afternoons, where they come together and light candles and say a prayer for the neighborhood. Different initiatives are happening. It’s not just the court case. But people are trying to stand up and change things around there.
I was there in 2019, and the neighborhood hadn’t visibly deteriorated. There were a couple of houses here and there that didn’t look good, but all of them weren’t failing at that point. Besides three hurricane seasons, something happened in the last few years.
Yes, I would say so. I first visited in 2018, and there were already a lot of homes that had issues. But it has gotten worse. And that basically mirrors the time that Make It Right has been inactive. Some of the homes were just sitting empty, some of the homes didn’t get the repairs they needed. But not all of the issues are visible from the outside. Some residents I talked to had problems with mold and termites, and that’s not something you would see from the streets.
I wrote about Make It Right and got to know some of the people there. I’m not privy to any information, and now no one’s talking at all. I’ve spent a fair amount of time, perhaps too much time, trying to figure out what went wrong. I feel there’s four reasons why this went poorly, and this is in no particular order. First, weak oversight, which would fall on the project architect whose job is to oversee construction of the homes. Second, Brad Pitt’s initial vision was flawed and probably naive, because bringing in famous architects and commanding them to “innovate” is, in retrospect, asking for it. Maybe they should have built as many affordable, sustainable, builder-friendly houses as they could, and leave the formalism out of it. Others did that, with far less fanfare. Third, hubris on the part of the famous architects, who couldn’t resist making Design Statements. Fourth, maintenance, the X-factor. As someone who lived 10 years in New Orleans, I know that houses there need constant maintenance. It rains 70 inches a year, and there’s an active, annual storm season. The climate is rough on houses of any style: traditional, modern, whatever. Does any of that make sense to you?
Oh, yes, absolutely, and I think it falls in line with what I said about the models of the homes being flawed. But that’s just one factor. It’s now clear that a lot of the construction and workmanship that went into them was flawed from the beginning. One of the residents I interviewed is a contractor himself, and he said it was terrible to see the mistakes that were made on the home that he moved into.
Brad Pitt being too much out there, maybe wanting too much, I agree. I think that the idea was lost from the beginning, not because affordable and sustainable homes are a bad idea, but because it takes more than what they did to create affordable and sustainable homes. If it were that easy, it would be a lot more common. I know the entire footprint of New Orleans was reopened and it was a huge debate, but it’s not sustainable to build homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s below sea level. So from the beginning, those homes were not gonna last 90 years.
I guess, but you could make the sea-level argument about so many neighborhoods in New Orleans. And neighborhoods that did get rebuilt. You could probably say that about Lakeview, which is white and insured and got rebuilt.
That’s why I’m saying I don’t want to open the footprint debate. But if I set out to build a sustainable community, I would not do it in the Lower Ninth Ward. Because I just think the idea of sustainability kind of runs counter to the idea of the neighborhood that might not exist anymore a couple of decades down the road.
True. But that wasn’t part of the debate at the time. And, for the record, there are New Orleans neighborhoods lower lying than the Lower Ninth Ward.
Yes, absolutely. I’m saying that maybe the idea of building a sustainable community was flawed from the outset, based on the location they chose. New Orleans, in general, has a lot of issues, but I just think Make It Right’s concept of sustainability and green homes was not fully thought through.
It certainly appears that way.
Your other point was about the role of the famous architects. I completely agree. Most of them proposed fairly avant-garde ideas that were really more about design, the look of things, rather than the local context, especially the climate.
What kind of maintenance are the residents themselves doing?
Obviously, that plays a part in it. But I think the residents are aware of how important their role is. They’re trying to maintain their houses. The repairs they’re asking for still fall under the promises that they got from Make It Right. Substandard materials are not the residents’ fault. That’s not a maintenance issue. Those are structural issues caused by Make It Right. Some of the residents are now stepping in and doing some of these repairs themselves, even though it’s hard on them. Many of them are low-income, and they cannot renovate their homes out of pocket.
And these are generally major repairs, not minor ones.
Yes, some of the repairs involve residents moving out of their home for a number of weeks or months.
Do you have plans to go back to keep following the story?
I absolutely would love to go back. I have to see how my research develops and whether I get funds for more research. But apart from that, I’m always in touch with the residents. I write a lot of emails, I talk to some of them on the phone. Even when I’m not there, I keep learning about what’s going on in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s definitely something that’s very close to my heart.
All photos courtesy of Judith Keller.