If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come

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URBANISM MARCH 13, 2013

If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come Brad Pitt's beautiful houses are a drag on New Orleans

Other than the nine hours spent clinging to a rooftop, the loss of the house she'd bought in 1977, and the two and a half years spent shuttling back and forth to her daughter's home in Atlanta, Hurricane Katrina has been pretty good to 72-year-old Gloria Guy. That's because, about five years ago now, Brad Pitt built her a really, really nice house.

Guy was the first beneficiary of the Make It Right foundation, the charity Pitt started in 2007 to furnish homes for those in the already dirt-poor Lower Ninth Ward who lost theirs. These new homes were not just slap-dash replacements. Guy's mustard-yellow four-bedroom is perched on seven-foot-tall stilts, with a roof that slants upward from front to back and leans to one side like a jaunty haircut—a bizarre sight in this city of graceful Creole symmetry. It was designed by a high-end local architect and features the latest in energy-efficient technology, as well as a solar array, non-toxic finishes, and custom cabinets. 

"Baby, this was the worst disaster to have, and they did nothing," says the tiny woman hunched in a sweatshirt on her lofty porch, referring to the federal and local powers that be. "The only person who came through here and worked with the people was Brad Pitt. The Prince of Wales came down here, and boy he was in the helicopter looking at us hanging on the roof, and then he took off in a jet and kept going." 

Make It Right has raised about $45 million. It says it has invested in a few other communities, but the majority of the money has been spent on construction of, and program expditure around, about 90 homes in this largely barren moonscape—viewed from the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which connects the ward to the center city, they spread out like a field of pastel-colored UFOs. But for a while now, Make It Right has been having trouble enticing people to buy their made-to-order homes. The neighborhood has turned into a retirement-community version of its former self; the ward's other former residents are dead or settled elsewhere. Construction on the cutting-edge designs has run into more than its share of complications, like mold plaguing walls built with untested material, and averaged upwards of $400,000 per house. Although costs have come down to around half that number, Make It Right is struggling to finance the rest of the 150 homes it promised, using revenue from other projects in Newark and Kansas City to supplement its dwindling pot of Hollywood cash. Now, in a wrenching deviation from its original mission, the non-profit has decided to open up to buyers who didn't live in the neighborhood before Katrina.

But there's a Catch-22: 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. 

It didn't have to be this way, and it's costing the city.

 

After the storm passed, and the emergency first responders had come and gone, the planners descended on New Orleans. It was a chance to remake a city, and the national Urban Land Institute came up with a proposal that made urbanist sense: Concentrate people as they returned to areas that could support city services and commercial investment, rather than allowing them to scatter across the sodden fields. Predictably, the plan was seen as a recipe for neighborhood elimination, and then-Mayor Ray Nagin caved to intense pressure to let people go back to their old homes and rebuild. 

"I think the difficulty that ULI had was the pure reality of their report could not face up to the emotional disaster that people were facing," says Pres Kabacoff, a New Orleans developer who agreed with the planners' recommendations. "It's like the ULI going to Hiroshima in 1946, and saying 'this is what you should do with your homes,' and then hiring a PR person to sell it." (Cities that have been losing poulation for decades, like Detroit, had an easier time deciding to shrink their footprint.)

With the green light from City Hall, people started to filter back. Progress was especially slow in the Lower Ninth, where homeowners often didn't have deeds to their properties, and federal recovery dollars took years to pull through layers of bureaucracy. By 2010, 2,842 people lived in the Lower Ninth, down from 14,000 in 2000. The only noticeable outpost north of Claiborne was the Make it Right houses, plus a few others scattered throughout the two-square-mile area—all of which the city has had to service with garbage pickup, police patrols, and streetlights.

"The thing that Make it Right did was force the city's hand to provide utilities down here," says Thom Pepper, of the non-profit Common Ground Relief, based across the street from Pitt's new neighborhood. That's fine for a contiguous block, but gets problematic when you let people settle further afield. "What they should've done is created an imaginary line north of here, and said 'okay, all you all who live north of Euclid, or whatever, if you want to come back, we're gonna swap lots.' So you had infrastructure, you didn't have to run sewer lines and water lines for blocks and blocks." (The state would've had to have been involved with that one, since it owns much of the empty land, as well as the federal government, which disburses the funds people used to rebuild.)

  • Brad Pitt and then–council member Cynthia Willard-Lewis (L) at a press conference in the Ninth Ward in 2007. (Getty Images/Getty Images Entertainment/Mark Mainz)
  • Brad Pitt's 'Make It Right' foundation launches its primary initiative with a huge 150 Pink Houses art project in Ninth Ward in 2007. (Getty Images/Getty Images News/Brent Stirton)
  • Getty Images/AFP/Rod Lamkey JR
  • Lower Ninth Ward resident Robert Green Sr., waves to passing cars outside his new home in 2010. (Getty Images/AFP/Rod Lamkey JR)
  • Getty Images/AFP/Rod Lamkey JR
  • Getty Images/AFP/Timothy A. Clary
  • Getty Images/AFP/Rod Lamkey JR
  • Getty Images/AFP/Timothy A. Clary
  • Getty Images/AFP/Timothy A. Clary
  • Getty Images/AFP/Timothy A. Clary

Seven and a half years after the storm, it's starting to look like most of those who want to return have already done so. Nonetheless, after years of community pressure, the city's put $45 million into road repairs in the ward, building out streets with nobody living on them while potholes in more populated areas go unfilled. It's also using about $65 million to build a brand-new high school, police station, and community center in hopes of attracting people back—and out of a sense that the hardest hit areas deserve to be rebuilt, even though there are less hard-hit areas that have a better chance of full recovery.

"The Lower Ninth Ward is getting the amount of improvements that are required for the damage that occurred," says Cedric Grant, the city's Deputy Mayor of Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development. "I think people returning is very much tied to the improvements that are put in place. There have to be streets and roads and schools and community centers that will be there in order for them to come back to. It's kind of a chicken and egg exercise."

Now, there are enough people around so that on the weekends, the streets don't look completely deserted, and the air resounds with banging on construction sites, leading a New York Times columnist to pronounce last month that a full recovery is underway. The problem is, private investment hasn't yet followed—the nearest place to get groceries is still the Walmart in Chalmette, 15 minutes away by car, and both St. Claude and Claiborne avenues are largely barren. Retailers and restaurants need to see earning potential in order to invest in a neighborhood, and at this point, the roster of returnees isn't deep.

"It's lonely. It's definitely lonely," says Elisha Spiller, who moved into a house built by the NFL Players Association even further out into the emptiness of the Lower Ninth than the Make It Right settlement. "When they were building the houses, they were telling me they were going to have homeowners. Now they say they're looking for someone to sell the home too."

If the Lower Ninth has any chance at becoming a livable community, new people are going to have to move in. But the young people who flooded the city after the waters receded are still finding plenty of room in the hipper neighborhoods, like the Marigny and the Bywater, that retained more of their historic housing stock. And the city seems determined to maintain the Lower Ninth's structural disadvantage in this regard: Although a 2009 analysis of residential market potential showed that only about 20 percent of the existing demand was for single-family detached homes, that's how the neighborhood has seen itself, and how it wants to remain. Even when a developer proposed the kind of dense, multifamily project that would attract the kind of amenities everybody says they want, residents howled in protest.1

"It's always been a single-family neighborhood, and that was the community's desires were after Katrina, and I think it will go back as a single-family neighborhood," says Jeff Hebert, director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

 

It's not just the site of the Make It Right houses that some object to, but the money Pitt's project spent to build them—an amount similar relief organizations in New Orleans can only dream of raising.

"It's just not a great solution to affordable housing issues," says Laura Paul of lowernine.org, which marshals volunteer labor and donations to help former residents rehabilitate their homes. "If I had $40 million, I could run my organization, at its current capacity, for 170 years. If you do the math, it's sort of like, we've rebuilt 60 homes in the neighborhood. We don't do Platinum LEED certified, Frank Gehry has not designed a single house for us and never will, but we put 60 families back in their homes." (Paul's non-profit it took in $1.25 million between 2007 and 2010, the latest year for which documents are available.)

"It seems that, for what you spent on one, you might be able to get two," adds Andreanecia Morris, a vice president at the non-profit developer Providence Community Housing, which has built about 1,800 homes and apartments at roughly one-third Make It Right's per-unit cost. 

It's hard to fault Pitt's intentions; there are worse uses for celebrity salaries and star power,  and since Katrina he has been one of the few people to actually deliver on his promises. But he's also put a stake in the ground in a place where it didn't make much sense for it to go, making it impossible for the city to focus its dwindling dollars in areas of the city with the best chance of the strongest recovery. 

The Make It Right homes are here to stay, though, with perhaps more to come. Now that the city has allowed this scattered rebuilding in the Lower Ninth, is there a chance the ward will not only recover, but grow into something better than the poor, crime-ridden place it's been for decades?

"Never gonna gonna happen. Never, never, never, never gonna happen," says Charles Buki, whose consulting firm is drawing up a land-use plan for neighboring St. Bernard Parish. "It's like going into freaking Sicily in 1930. It doesn't matter. It's not gonna make a difference. If there ever is a physical manifestation of futility, that's it." If the city really wants to move the dial in the Lower Ninth, Buki says, it needs to incentivize a dense cluster of 700 or 800 mixed-income units in duplexes or triplexes around a commercial node--and triage out the rest.

The more likely scenario, says Brookings Institution community development expert Alan Mallach, is that the area returns to a kind of quasi-rural state where people need cars to meet their daily needs. But then, does it really deserve the kind of infrastructure of neighborhoods with greater potential to fully rebound—like Desire Florida, or the Treme?

"You can say we're going to rebuild the Lower Nine and spend hundreds of millions of dollars," says Mallach. "What you're really saying is we're going to spend hundreds of millions to rebuild the Lower Nine, and not putting that money into areas A, B, and C. Every time you make an investment with public resources, or try to draw market demand into an area, you're making choices."

Pitt's foundation could have chosen to put its money into a neighborhood where the compounding effects would've been remarkable, or at least one without the added risk and cost of building below sea level. He could also have built several hundred perfectly serviceable, weatherproof, and efficient new homes, instead of the 90 he's completed—like Barnes and Noble founder Leonard Riggio, who'll build 200 new homes in a concentrated area in nearby Gentilly for about the same amount. He could even have filled in more quickly recovering neighborhoods with higher-quality traditional designs, like New Urbanist patron saint Andres Duany. Instead, Pitt got an interesting architectural experiment, lots of gushy magazine coverage, and a place for Gloria Guy to remember what life was like before it all floated away. 

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. Lower Niners, however, have a different kind of attachment to their ancestral land—for the black families who've lived there for decades, it's often the first property they were able to own. And it's not like they had a wealth of public or commercial infrastructure before the storm either. 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.

Michelle Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans who runs a data project to map property conditions and ownership, came down from Cornell University to help with relief efforts after Katrina, had subscribed to Buki's logic that the Lower Ninth would never emerge a better place than it was before Katrina.

But then, something changed.

"When you're here, and you talk to people, you're like, this is generations of families. This is more than bricks and mortar. Who's to say which neighborhood is more valuable than another?" she says. "There's a lot of constraints and reasons why not to do it, and that's why we should. Everything people think can't be done, New Orleans puts it on its head, and makes it happen... You look at the Lower Nine and say 'why.' And now I say 'why not?'"

Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect several factual changes. In the initial version, a quote by New Orleans Redevelopment Authority director Jeff Hebert was wrongly attributed to Hayne Rainey, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. It also wrongly stated that Gloria Guy's home was perched on nine-foot high stilts and had two bedrooms; in fact, the risers are seven feet tall, and Guy's house has four bedrooms. The piece also inaccurately stated that another post-Katrina construction effort was built at a higher elevation than Make It Right's houses.

The article has also been clarified to make clear that the $45 million raised by Make It Right was spent not just on construction of actual houses but on other expenses related to enabling their development, such as nearby parks or financial counseling for homeowners. The organization says some money was also invested in other communities.   

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PHOTO BY Timothy A. Clary/Getty

1

Often, residents are also reacting to a memory of apartment complexes as sources of blight and crime. "I don't think a multiplex is a good thing for the Lower Ninth Ward," says Linda Jackson, of the Lower Ninth Ward Homeowners Association. "I'm just looking at the Pre-Katrina situation, where we had a lot of complexes, and there was no organization, no management."

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