By Brandy Zadrozny, Kit Ramgopal and Farnoush Amiri
NEW ORLEANS — Kamaria Allen had no plans to return to the Lower 9th Ward after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. But then she saw the new houses.
Billed as flood-safe and futuristic, the Make It Right homes towered over vacant lots in pops of teal, lemon and lavender. Houses like that just didn’t exist in the working-class, mostly black section of New Orleans that Allen’s family had called home for four generations — and definitely not for $130,000.
“I called it my Mardi Gras float,” Allen says of 1826 Reynes Street, the roof deck-topped home that now sits abandoned — mushrooms growing from its split siding, wooden boards propping up its sagging roof. Allen bought the house in 2011 from the Make It Right Foundation, a charity formed by Brad Pitt to help Lower 9th Ward residents return home after the hurricane.
Make It Right’s mission was to build 150 well-designed, green, affordable homes in the Lower 9th Ward, the area hardest hit by Katrina. As of 2016, the group reported spending $26.8 million building 109 homes, fueling the most visible recovery effort in an area still reeling from the storm.
But Allen and 11 other residents who spoke to NBC News, 10 of them on the record, say that many of the Make It Right homes are rotting and dangerous. They complain of mold and collapsing structures, electrical fires and gas leaks. They say the houses were built too quickly, with low-quality materials, and that the designs didn’t take into account New Orleans’ humid, rainy climate.
“This has been years of ongoing lies and broken promises,” Allen said in a recent interview in which she detailed Make It Right’s pledges and failures to repair her home.
As the problems worsened, the organization has all but disappeared. Make It Right hasn’t built a home, filed tax forms or updated its website since 2015. The downtown New Orleans office has been closed, the staff has been cut to a handful and residents say their calls go unreturned. While Pitt ordered inspections for the homes in 2016, according to a spokesperson, residents say they’re still waiting for the results and for much-needed repairs.
Linda Jackson, a longtime resident and founder of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association, a group that advocates affordable homeownership and resident-driven redevelopment, said the majority of Make It Right’s homes are now vacant. “It’s just not working out,” she said.
Some residents have stayed quiet about the problems out of loyalty to a star actor who brought attention to the need to rebuild, while others have been silenced by nondisclosure agreements that Pitt’s foundation required them to sign in exchange for settlements or repairs. But residents are growing increasingly frustrated — and vocal. Last week, two residents sued Pitt and Make It Right, accusing the organization of breach of contract and fraud for selling them “defectively and improperly constructed" homes.
A spokesperson for Pitt declined to comment on the lawsuit but released the following statement on Pitt’s behalf in response to questions from NBC News: “We began an extensive review of homes just after the tenth anniversary of Katrina. Thanks to the dedication of the MIR team, we have been coordinating repairs of homes experiencing problems since early 2018 and I have total faith in our team on the ground to see this through.
“I made a promise to the folks of the Lower Ninth to help them rebuild — it is a promise I intend to keep.”
Make It Right’s corporate headquarters and last known board members did not return calls for comment.
Allen, 35, moved into her gray, two-story Make It Right house on stilts in October 2011. Within weeks, she said she noticed cream-colored mushrooms popping up from her bedroom walls and kitchen outlets. Photos from that winter show mold creeping on her carpets and the mushrooms protruding from wood rotting under the siding. By 2012, Allen, who works from home as a health insurance administrator, said she began having headaches and felt tired all the time, symptoms reflected in a doctor’s note from August 2012.
An August 2012 report from Barclay Assessment Services, an environmental inspection company hired by Make It Right, found mold in the home’s kitchen cabinet, according to a copy of the report Allen provided to NBC News. The report also found elevated levels of basidiospores in the air, a product of fungus that “are often associated with advance mold rot caused by a chronic moisture condition,” according to the report.
Allen said she tried dozens of times to get her dream home repaired. She said Make It Right initially made minor repairs like caulking holes or adding tile, but for the major issues like mold remediation or structural repairs, the nonprofit was unresponsive, she said.
In 2012, Allen moved out. Make It Right paid her a cash settlement the following year — reimbursing her for the down payment and a year of mortgage payments — and in exchange Allen signed a nondisclosure form, promising not to make any written or verbal statements critical of Make It Right, according to documents seen by NBC News. Allen broke this agreement to speak to NBC News and to bring attention to other homeowners whose problems, she said, have been ignored by Make it Right.
That includes her parents. When Allen fled her home, she moved in with them and her brother — in a home a few streets away, also built by Make It Right.
Allen said her parents’ home hasn’t fared any better. Wood on the porch and wheelchair-lift is rotting, the stairway railing gave way under her mother and an inspector hired by Allen reported mold and improper ventilation, which Allen believes is making her and her family sick.
Allen’s father, Keith, 63, quit his job as a yacht builder in 2013 after a mysterious illness brought on near-constant tremors, which made it a struggle for him to open water bottles and button shirts. Her mother, Sharon, 65, has trouble breathing and suffers from frequent respiratory infections, and her brother Khalid, 20, has been in and out of the hospital in the last few years for issues including muscle tremors, impaired speech, breathing problems and memory loss. The family believes the symptoms are connected to the mold, and they say doctors have told them to leave the house, but they cannot afford to unless Make It Right buys it back.
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In an October 2014 letter shown to NBC News, Dr. Patrice Evers of the Tulane Lakeside Pediatric Clinic, who had treated Khalid, wrote that his symptoms, including memory problems and insomnia, could be related to mold in the house. In a July 2015 letter, Dr. Sara E. Fernandez of Ochsner Center for Primary Care and Wellness wrote that Sharon Allen’s breathing symptoms occurred during exposure to “excessive” mold and carbon dioxide in her home.
Allen said Make It Right has stopped returning her family’s phone calls.
“The organization does not build safe homes,” Allen wrote to Make it Right in 2015, a letter that she says received no reply. “It is a fool’s paradise.”
Problems like those of the Allens led attorney Ron Austin to sue Pitt and Make It Right on Sept. 7. The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, alleges that Make It Right had identified a number of issues related to the building materials and the homes’ design that required significant repair, but the organization never alerted homeowners. The Allens are not part of the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of two other Make It Right residents, Lloyd Francis and Jennifer Decuir.
“The problem is that they’re stringing people along because they’re making promises that they’ll fix things, and they never do,” Austin said before the lawsuit was filed. “Folks are getting sicker and houses are breaking down every day.”
In April 2006, eight months after New Orleans’ levees broke and flooded the city, nearly all of the residents of the devastated Lower 9th Ward were still displaced. Some were still searching for the dead amid the wreckage when Pitt announced his plan to help rebuild the area.
Big-name architects including Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban donated original designs for modern, innovative homes, and Pitt raised millions of dollars at star-studded Make It Right galas to fund their construction by local builders. Dozens of inspired, if inexperienced, staffers were brought in to work for the organization, according to two former staff members who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements required by the foundation, which were viewed by NBC News.
The goal was ambitious. “You may have heard the adage: You can have it fast, cheap or well-made. Pick two,” the organization’s executive director at the time, Tom Darden, said in a 2010 speech about the nonprofit’s early efforts. Darden, the son of a North Carolina equity fund manager, was a recent college graduate when he volunteered to help Pitt after Katrina and was eventually chosen to lead the organization.
“Well, Brad Pitt is a tough boss,” Darden said in the 2010 speech at the PopTech conference, posted on YouTube in 2011. “He said that we had to build houses that were safe, affordable, green, adaptive, durable, designed by award-winning architects, designed around residents’ needs.”
“Absolutely no compromises,” Darden said at the time. He declined to comment recently when reached by NBC News.
But along with new homeowners — first displaced residents and then, because of a lack of buyers, teachers and first responders — the compromises came, according to the two former Make It Right employees and the lawsuit against Make It Right.
Make It Right built the houses using “defective, inappropriate and/or insufficient materials,” the recent lawsuit alleged.
And it quickly became clear to residents that a few of the all-star designs — sent from architects as far away as Ghana, Chile and Japan — weren’t going to work in Louisiana. The roofs on more than a dozen houses were flat — a red flag for locals.
“There was no way I was going to buy a flat-roofed house,” said Sean LeBeouf, a police officer who lives with his wife in a Make It Right house, which has a slanted roof. “In Louisiana, that’s just ridiculous. Look around, and there are no flat-roofed houses because of how much rain we get.”
Constance Fowler, a Make It Right homeowner and local activist, has counted 18 homes with flat roofs that Make It Right later redid to add a slant. The organization has also replaced rotting decks on at least 36 of the 109 homes since 2008, according to a lawsuit Make It Right filed against a lumber manufacturer. Make It Right chose TimberSIL because it advertised sustainable wood that was not treated with chemicals, but the lumber rotted in the Louisiana climate, according to the suit.
Brittany West lived in one of the flat-roof houses — a buttermilk-yellow rectangle hugged by a front porch.
She moved in in 2011 with her husband and three daughters, and after one of the first rainfalls, she said she noticed water pouring in under the door. Make It Right fixed the leak, she said, but water kept seeping into the walls whenever it rained. By 2012, West said she was getting near-constant migraines, which she now attributes to mold.
Over the next three years, West said she called Make It Right every few months to complain. Each time, Make It Right employees came to take pictures of the damage and took notes, she said, only to leave the organization before following through.
“Someone's not telling me what’s wrong and I have small children,” West said she remembers thinking.
Worried for her family’s health, West left the home in 2015 and moved in with her sister in Georgia, where she said her migraines stopped.
In June, as neighbors’ complaints and building code violations piled up, the home was demolished. On the demolition permit application, under the reason the property was being demolished, the contractor hired by Make It Right wrote, “Blighted property.”
Reginald Moliere, West’s uncle and the home’s owner, said Make It Right told him it intends to rebuild.
“Eventually they said they’re going to scrap it and start over,” he said, “but they didn’t give me a date or timeline.”
By 2016, as homeowner concerns piled up, Darden quietly left as Make It Right’s CEO, and the staff was slashed to six — including two lawyers, according to former employees and the website’s staff page. Last year, Make It Right closed its headquarters in downtown New Orleans and moved into a trailer in the Lower 9th Ward, residents said. The current chief operating officer and only executive, James Mazzuto, joined the organization as an intern in 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile and a previous version of the Make It Right site.
“They used to have dozens of people, but for the last two-and-a-half years it’s been a skeleton crew that you can’t even get hold of,” said Thomas Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief, a group of locals who organized to help with rescues and eventually rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina and worked alongside Make It Right. “They don’t answer phone calls. They don’t answer emails. It’s crazy.”
One of the remaining people working with Make It Right is John C. Williams, the organization’s executive architect, who turned the original house designs into blueprints.
Building houses isn’t easy in the Lower 9th Ward, Williams told NBC News, citing rain, moisture, and a lack of bedrock as particular challenges. “We’re basically on Jell-O,” Williams said.
Williams, who is not on the staff at Make It Right and does not work for the organization full-time, said homeowners were partly to blame for the problems with the houses, because they did not always notify Make It Right immediately about the need for repairs. “Maybe the occupants weren’t aware so they didn’t bring it up,” Williams said, since mold is not always visible. Others, he said, made quick fixes like putting pots under leaky ceilings, increasing the damage.
“It is what it is, and it’s going to take a lot more time to recover in that neighborhood,” he said.
Williams called the project an experiment and said, “Sometimes when you experiment, you’ve got to be flexible.”
According to Williams’ count, there are “about a dozen” houses that still need work — pitching flat roofs and sealing the edges where leaks come in — and he’s willing to do it. “I helped create it so I’m responsible,” he said. “That means I’m going to track them down and make it right.” He’s currently busy on other projects and said he plans to start the work in October.
Meanwhile, some Make It Right homeowners are holding onto the hope that Pitt will return and save the project.
“I know that they did not create the organization to hurt us,” Allen said. “But the fact is is that it happened. Even though you don't mean to do something bad, but something bad still happens, you need to be held accountable.”
Brandy Zadrozny reported from New Orleans and New York; Kit Ramgopal and Farnoush Amiri reported from New York