Actor Brad Pitt didn’t have much experience with financing forgivable loans when he built his first home in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward in 2008.
But seven years later, Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation has gained worldwide attention for the eye-catching home designs and “green” building features — such as solar panels and rainwater collectors — that it has incorporated into a growing development for low-income residents seeking to return to the neighborhood.
“I walked into it blind, just thinking, ‘People need homes; I know people who make great homes. Let’s solve this problem of the inequality and low-income housing in a place that’s been ravaged by the environment,’ ” the 51-year-old Pitt said Friday in a telephone interview.
Although Pitt and his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, put their French Quarter mansion on the market earlier this year, he said they’re not planning to leave the city for good and may buy another home in time.
A decade after Katrina’s floodwaters destroyed more than 5,300 homes in a neighborhood once known for having the highest rate of black home ownership in New Orleans, Pitt’s efforts have paid off: His foundation has spent $26.8 million to build 109 homes in a 20-block area.
In part because of his efforts, the neighborhood has managed to bounce back somewhat, though slowly. It now has about 37 percent of its population before the storm — a lower figure than most other devastated parts of the city.
Though he said there’s still work to do, Pitt considers the Make It Right development to be an example of how to rebuild in a neighborhood that some city and federal officials had suggested should not be rebuilt at all in the storm’s aftermath.
He called it “an oasis of color, an ... oasis of how to build with dignity for low-income housing, and I see it as a template for how we can build our cities and certainly our neighborhoods in other areas in the future.”
When he returns occasionally and bicycles through the Lower 9th Ward, Pitt said, he looks around, talks to residents and feels energized. “I’m over the moon,” he said, “and then I’m reminded why I’m there.”
With the homes built and schools and fire service back, he said, the next step is improving access in the neighborhood to groceries — a central issue that has plagued many low-income areas across the city still recovering from the storm, and one that may soon be resolved in the Lower 9th.
“That’s a big part of what needs to happen there and in other pockets in New Orleans,” he said.
Pitt noted other pressing issues are facing the region, such as preserving the wetlands and improving the region’s flood control systems.
“We can keep improving the flood system, and we can keep improving our homes, but the wetlands seems to be the big issue,” he said.
When he and Jolie return to New Orleans, he said, they’ll stick to hotels for a while, but they’re interested in buying another place in the city.
However, it likely will be outside of the French Quarter — unless it comes equipped with an underground tunnel.
“I love the Quarter so much,” he said, but he acknowledged that he’d like a little more privacy than the neighborhood offers: “It’s hard to sit on the balcony or try to get in and out.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.