Lawrentay Dabon’s wife was seven months pregnant when the couple closed on their tidy, one-story house on North Derbigny Street, in what became known as the Make It Right village in the Lower 9th Ward.
Both had grown up in the neighborhood and were eager to return, even though the house was just blocks from the section of the Industrial Canal where a floodwall burst as Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans in 2005. Water flowed through the gap with such force that many houses on these blocks floated off their foundations or broke into pieces and were never found.
“We were born and raised here,” said Dabon, 32. “When we got this house, we thought we were coming home."
But from the very start, the couple noticed problems. The property line was different than they were originally told. The floor plan featured three bedrooms but was changed to two. They approved drawings that included a driveway, then were told the measurements had been off, leaving no room for a driveway.
Over the years, the problems got bigger. Now, as their daughter Lawren approaches her seventh birthday, any toy she drops rolls quickly down a sloped floor toward their side door.
Dabon walked down the porch steps and pointed underneath his raised house to an area where a sagging crossbeam sits between widely spaced foundational piers. Repair crews have braced the badly bowed crossbeam with another horizontal board. It’s a makeshift repair, at best.
“See how it’s sagging?” he said. “This is the problem that bothers me the most.”
Things have gotten so bad that Dabon worries that the couple is making payments on a 30-year mortgage for a home that could be worthless, even dangerous, by the time it's paid off.
A lawsuit has been filed in New Orleans, accusing Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation of building "substandard" Lower 9th Ward homes po…
He’s not alone in those concerns. Based on interviews this week with several homeowners, it seems that almost every Make It Right house has had problems.
Now, two residents, Jennifer Decuir and Lloyd Francis, have filed suit, alleging that they were duped into believing the homes were well constructed and that the Make It Right Foundation would honor its home warranties. They are asking an Orleans Parish judge to make the case a class action.
In 2007, actor Brad Pitt launched the Make It Right Foundation with the goal of building 150 single-family homes to help the badly devastated Lower 9th Ward recover.
The next year, to much fanfare, construction began on the iconic, modern homes designed by an all-star group of international architects. Tour operators still run big coach buses past the more than 100 homes clustered around Tennessee, Reyes and Deslonde streets.
But the houses no longer look fresh. Their angles are becoming less defined. Roofs are badly bowed. On some houses, side panels are curving away from vertical beams. On others, cranes are helping crews make massive renovations while families live elsewhere. Some homeowners have gone through more than one interior renovation, neighbors say.
Lots of homes suffer from rotten wood on exterior porches and steps, much of which can be blamed on a glass-infused wood called TimberSIL. Make It Right sued the manufacturer in 2015, alleging that the product was falsely promoted as a “green” way to prevent rot without using chemicals.
Other homes have water leaks and rampant black mold. Some of the worst problems are in models that have low-sloped roofs, particularly in a very popular design created by the Philadelphia architectural firm KieranTimberlake.
One Tennessee Street resident, who described herself as a Brad Pitt “superfan,” said she and her husband would get water intrusion in their KieranTimberlake home during every rainstorm, to the point where they would use every towel in the house to sop up the mess.
With repairs stalled for two years on one of its iconic, modernist homes in the Lower 9th Ward, the Make It Right Foundation wants to demolish…
At first, they’d wring the towels out in the bathtub and in buckets, then go back to sop up more water. Then they bought a wet vacuum just to get through storms. Workmen show up sometimes, sometimes they don't, she said. But like several other residents, she didn’t want her name used because she worried that repairs might stop completely if she publicly criticized the foundation.
Another relatively flat-roofed model that has been plagued with problems was conceived by British architect David Adjaye, who designed the African American Museum in Washington, D.C. It has wide front steps leading to a living space, with a top-story, open-air deck.
Constance Fowler, 66, a retired schoolteacher with bright blue hair who has become a self-appointed neighborhood watchdog, gave a reporter a short walking tour of all four houses that seem to be based on the Adjaye design.
Three have received drastic roof and interior renovations. The last one, at 1826 Reynes St., has been empty since its buyer moved out in 2012 because of widespread mold, she said. City records include a Sept. 5 contract between Make It Right and Cain Construction to make $250,000 worth of repairs to one of the homes in the 1800 block of Tennessee Street.
It is unclear where the errors occurred. Though firms like KieranTimberlake and Adjaye Associates gave the designs to Make It Right, construction drawings were created under the supervision of local architect John C. Williams and were then translated by Make It Right contractors. As homes were built, materials such as roof membranes or window flashing may have changed, for instance.
Williams and the Make It Right Foundation did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
KieranTimberlake issued a short statement, noting that its design was submitted in 2008 and that the firm “saw the first prototype home through completion in 2009.”
Since the firm first heard about the problems in recent news reports, members have contacted Williams to offer assistance, the statement said.
“While KieranTimberlake did not produce the construction drawings for Make It Right and we were not part of the construction process for the homes, we are presently seeking ways to work with our local partners to identify solutions to the problems faced by the homeowners,” it read.
Until this summer, a blighted KieranTimberlake house sat next to Fowler's home. Frustrated by the blighted house, she stepped into the role of community activist, she said.
At a city code-enforcement hearing in April, a relative said that the house’s owner, Reginald Moliere, had moved out in early 2016 after his wife became sick from mold linked to a leaking roof. Make It Right filed plans to replace it with a roof with a more marked slope. Instead, once the low-sloped roof came off, it was replaced with a blue tarp.
After sitting exposed to the elements for two years, the house had piled up 14 blight violations and had deteriorated to the point where Make It Right paid to knock it down.
What’s become clear to Fowler is that the much-heralded Make It Right designs were not executed with enough care. “As a result, we are all living in experimental homes,” she said.
The lawsuit filed this week in Orleans Parish Civil District Court by lawyers Ron Austin and Catherine Hilton lists a “multitude of damages” within the “deficiently constructed and built” homes, including failed HVAC systems; trapped water and moisture; poor air quality; structural, electrical and plumbing problems; and rotten wood, especially on porches and stair railings.
The suit was assigned to Judge Rachael Johnson.
The problems run counter to the vision that Pitt described when he founded Make It Right, pledging sustainable, storm-resistant homes built from durable, green materials and topped with solar panels.
As he told historian Douglas Brinkley in 2010, for an interview published in the Times-Picayune: “Too often we give disaster victims cheap building products, slipshod materials, and then put on top of them the burden of energy bills and medical bills. You know it’s the badly built levees that destroyed these people’s lives. We needed, as a country, to do something right for them. A new paradigm was needed. The technology was available. So I thought, ‘Let’s build houses that answer all the problems.’ ”
A decade ago, as Make It Right crews used a 12-week timeline to build houses at a time when recovery from Katrina still seemed painfully slow, Pitt was seen as a problem solver, to the point where “Brad Pitt for Mayor” T-shirts became popular.
Some residents are still reluctant to criticize Pitt because they feel beholden to him for his devotion to this overlooked part of town.
“It kind of gave us a foothold,” said LilJose Marie Tompkins, 56, who recently had Make It Right crews replace rotten wood on two of her porches on Tennessee Street.
Tompkins even today gets tearful when she thinks of October 2005. That’s when she and other Lower 9 residents were first able to view what remained of their lifelong homes — but only from tour buses.
She believes Pitt’s brainchild also created a critical mass of homes that encouraged residents of other nearby blocks to rebuild.
All it takes is a drive along the weed-choked blocks adjacent to the nearby Florida Avenue Canal to see what this area would have looked like without the Make It Right initiative, she said.
“I refuse to blame Brad Pitt," she said. “He’s not a builder. He’s an actor. All he knew was that he wanted to do good. This man tried to do good.”