A subsidiary of the Make It Right Foundation — the troubled post-Katrina housing nonprofit founded by actor Brad Pitt — owes the city of New Orleans nearly $15,000 in delinquent property taxes and fines on the 32 properties it owns in the Lower 9th Ward. And the group may owe thousands more in 2022 taxes.
Another Make It Right-owned property was offered up at a tax sale in 2020 for delinquent taxes dating back to 2017. (The organization has until next year to pay off that debt, or the tax certificate buyer can take over the property’s title.) And a 34th property was recently seized and sold by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office for failure to pay $1,205 in fines for sanitation violations and “rodent harborage.”
All in all, 33 properties are still owned by Make It Right — New Orleans Housing, LLC, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Make It Right Foundation. They mainly include vacant lots, as well as a vacant and dilapidated gas station, the foundation’s abandoned construction office, a playground (now maintained by neighbors) and one completed Make It Right house that was never sold but is still standing.
Several of the properties have open city code violations. The vacant lots have become increasingly overgrown a year after the foundation stopped paying a landscaper to maintain them. The blighted gas station, office and playground continue to deteriorate. And although the one completed home appears in good shape on the exterior, the interior is clearly damaged and exposed to the elements.
Some of the lots are mowed and well maintained. But it appears that’s only because some residents living next door — many of whom live in homes built by Make It Right — have started to mow the properties themselves to keep away rats, mosquitos and snakes.
“It’s total abandonment,” Make It Right homeowner Constance Fowler told The Lens.
Map of properties owned by Make It Right
Click on properties for information and photos.
The unkempt properties are another on a long list of grievances these residents have against Make It Right and Pitt, whose mission to heal and restore the neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has unraveled over the past several years.
In 2007, the foundation began building and selling dozens of low-cost homes, using designs from world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban that promised to be “green” and “sustainable.” But the homes, in part due to faulty designs and materials, have had major issues with leaks, mold, structural damage and gas leaks.
In 2018, a group of Make It Right homebuyers sued the foundation. The foundation subsequently sued its local architect and former executive director. As the legal battles escalated, the foundation has become impossible to reach, residents say, and has seemingly given up on trying to resolve the ongoing issues in the neighborhood.
“I have zero faith in Make It Right,” resident Tineka West said. “We’re on our own.”
West, who owns a Make It Right home on Deslonde Street, lives next to one of the vacant foundation-owned lots. She now shares responsibility for mowing it along with her neighbor, who also lives in a Make It Right home.
West told The Lens that she’s tried to purchase the property from Make It Right to use as a community space, but that “they wouldn’t come to the table.” Now she watches with frustration at some of the other properties being auctioned off due to unpaid taxes or code violations.
“We want accessibility to these lots as first dibs, and not just allow some investors to come in and sweep it away,” she said. “We want to bring back our own neighborhood. I mean, clearly we’ve already been taking care of it.”
A spokeswoman for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that the city has not been in contact with Make It Right regarding the vacant and blighted properties. When The Lens asked whether the city was planning more property seizures or tax sales for those properties, the spokeswoman said that properties are dealt with individually.
“Each property is administered separately as required by law,” spokeswoman Melissa Newell said. “Code Enforcement is not against the owner/entity, it is against the property.”
But, she said, “any property delinquent in taxes is subject to tax sale.”
The Lens was unable to contact the Make It Right foundation directly. The Lens contacted one of the law firms representing the foundation in the class-action lawsuit, informing them there was an upcoming story related to the foundation. A representative for the firm said “no comment” before a reporter could ask any questions.
The Make It Right Foundation was founded in 2007, when Pitt — who lived part-time in the French Quarter with then-wife Angelina Jolie — vowed to build 150 affordable homes in the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by flooding due to breaches of the federal levee system during Katrina. The foundation actually built 109 homes, using a diverse set of designs by prominent international architects. The majority appear to have been sold for around $150,000 — roughly the same amount it cost to build them.
In 2009, The New York Times called the development “Brad Pitt’s Gifts to New Orleans.” West said that residents, especially those like her who had lived in the neighborhood before the storm, were brought to events around the city to highlight the foundation’s impact.
“It was always some sort of pitch, some sort of gimmick,” West said. “At all of these events, they would show us off and say, ‘We’re helping.’ ”
But that rosy picture began to degrade as widespread issues emerged in the homes, including flooding, mold, rotting wood, gas leaks and termites. Some of the problems were due to designs that were atypical for New Orleans and, some argued, incapable of surviving in the region’s climate. Famously, several of the homes were built with flat roofs, which quickly deteriorated in heavy rain.
Some of the homes had to be completely demolished and were never rebuilt. Several others had to undergo extensive renovations and rebuilds to fix the problems.
Last month, a researcher at the University of Illinois, Judith Keller, released findings about the current state of the 109 Make It Right homes. She found that two had been completely demolished, that six were boarded up and abandoned and that the vast majority of the others have either “had partial repairs or have been completely renovated because of structural problems.” She found that only six of the original 109 homes “remain in reasonably good shape.”
West said she’s faced many of those same issues in her home, and that she currently can’t sleep upstairs because of mold caused by leaking windows.
“As you can see, everything’s rotting away,” West said. “I want to come home and not worry about whether the AC is gonna work, if my doors are gonna be full of mildew, if I’m going to smell bad sheetrock, if the plumbing is gonna back up into my tub and sink.”
West originally bought the property before the storm in 2002. She sold it to Make It Right for $10,000 in 2013, then bought the property back from the foundation for $170,000 later that year after the foundation constructed a home.
West emphasized that for the most part, the houses weren’t free, and that many residents are financially tied to their homes and can’t just leave because of the rampant problems.
“Most of us are paying mortgages,” she said. “I really want a do-over. Just touring the house alone you’ll be devastated at what we’ve had to maintain that was messed up in our houses.”
In 2018, residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the foundation for unfair trade practices, breach of contract and fraud. The case is now pending in Orleans Parish Civil District court.
Many of the residents’ claims have been acknowledged by the foundation itself. In 2015, the foundation sued the manufacturer of a specialty wood that quickly rotted. In 2018, the foundation sued the local architect of record for allegedly providing defective designs. And in 2021, the foundation sued its former executive director and host of other former executives for allegedly mismanaging the project.
Residents say that for years after the problems emerged, the foundation regularly stepped in to renovate and make repairs when things went wrong, or temporarily pay to relocate people with the promise of building them a livable home.
But that’s changed in recent years. The organization’s website and listed phone numbers are disconnected. Even the hotline for resident customer service no longer works. The Lens was also unable to find a public tax filing — called a form 990 — for the last several years. The most recent one available was from 2018.
West said she hasn’t been able to contact the foundation since before the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Fowler hasn’t been able to get in contact since 2019.
In December, Keller went to the foundation’s main office on Magazine Street, only to find a movers taking the office furniture to storage. Make It Right’s office in the Lower 9th Ward is also abandoned. (The group owes $2,566 in back taxes on that Lower 9th Ward property.)
“I mean you’ve seen their office,” Fowler said. “They had those garbage cans full of water. If you open the mailbox, rotting mail. People were banging on those doors.”
Several shipping containers that were used to store foundation supplies and documents have also been taken away over the last few months, according to neighbors.
Property tax and code enforcement woes
Make It Right purchased the 33 properties it still owns between 2009 and 2015 for a cumulative $701,000. Some of the properties still have “Coming Soon” signs littered about bearing the Make It Right logo and blueprints for future homes.
Until recently, the group owned 34 Lower 9th Ward properties. But one, at 1801 Jourdan Ave., was seized late last year over $705 in unpaid Code Enforcement fines and sold at auction early this month.
On another property, 1826 Reynes St., the organization owes more than $2,000 in code violation fines. Of the properties it currently owns, 1826 Reynes St. is the only one where it ever built and sold a so-called “Brad Pitt house.” According to property records and news reports, Kameria Allen purchased the house in 2011, but after persistent mold problems, sold it back to the foundation two years later. The house was demolished in 2020 after the city found it to be in “imminent danger of collapse.”
In total, Make It Right owes $14,972.81 in back taxes and fines, which are added to a property’s tax bill once they become delinquent. Most of that debt was accumulated in 2021, when the foundation failed to pay taxes on any one of its properties. And It’s possible that number will grow even higher for unpaid 2022 taxes, which are due today, March 31.
According to the city’s online tax records database, the foundation owes $9,493 in 2022 property taxes. But The Lens was unable to confirm that the foundation has not paid that down. It appears that the city’s digital property tax records haven’t been updated to show whether property owners have yet paid their 2022 taxes. Officials did not respond to questions about the group’s 2022 property taxes.
One property — at 5429 N. Derbigny St. — went to a tax sale in 2020 after the group failed to pay property taxes and fines on it since 2017, records show. Unlike a sheriff’s foreclosure, where the property is seized under court order and its title transferred to the highest bidder at auction, a tax sale allows the purchaser to buy the property’s tax certificate. The original property owner then has three years — 18 months if the property has been declared blighted by the city — to pay off the debt before the title can actually be transferred to the tax-certificate buyer.
Make It Right has previously faced tax sales on four of the 33 properties, but paid off the tax debt before ownership was transferred. Notably, the foundation paid off those four properties’ tax debts in 2018 and 2019, before residents say the Make It Right Foundation became so elusive. The most recent tax sale occurred in 2020. Two years later, the group has not settled the debt.
Newell said that if no buyers step up during a tax sale, the city has to wait five years before it’s considered to be “adjudicated” to the city. She said at that point, the property would be eligible for the city’s Mow to Own, Good Neighbor Opportunity Program initiative, which allows residents to cheaply acquire adjacent vacant property if they agree to maintain it for a year.
For West and other Make It Right residents, that means it could be a while before they even have the opportunity to take over these properties, if they even get that opportunity at all.
West said that just like the other issues they’re having with Make It Right, resolutions for the vacant and blighted properties could be years away. She said at this point, some residents have been fighting for so long that they’ve died waiting for a resolution.
“I would definitely want you to highlight the residents that have to wait in this fight and expiring when they were waiting to be made whole,” she said.
She pointed to her former neighbor, Trudy Green, who passed away in 2018 — 18 months after she had to vacate her Make It Right home due to toxic mold, according to media reports. She was still dislocated and trying to get the foundation to build her a new home when she died, West said. Green’s family has spoken out saying they believe the toxicity issues in Green’s home contributed to her death.
West and Fowler both said that the stress, anxiety and fear of dealing with their dilapidated homes and fighting with the foundation have not helped with their neighbors’ health issues. And the vacant lots
“Some really intense stuff happens here,” Fowler said.