Brad Pitt slammed over rotting homes
RESIDENTS of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward neighbourhood are still angry at the effect of Hurricane Katrina had on their unprepared the city.
But now, 13 years on, some of their wrath is directed at Brad Pitt and his charity Make It Right.
Following the horrific natural disaster in 2005, Pitt and his non-profit organisation pledged to build 150 sustainable, affordable, and environmentally friendly new homes to replace those that were destroyed in the massive storm.
After the levees of the city's industrial canal were breached, the Lower Ninth Ward - made up of predominantly low-income families - was destroyed by the floods with most houses swept away or left in ruins.
Among the first to lend a helping hand was Pitt, who - along with his then wife Angelina Jolie - owned a house in New Orleans and set up the charity Make It Right to help regenerate the area.
Pitt was lauded as a humanitarian.
But according to some residents, he hasn't been seen in the Lower Ninth Ward in years.
The actor's last Make It Right home was built in 2016, and the organisation appeared to have given up on its promise to construct 150 new homes - as stated on its out-of-date website - with just over 100 being built.
And many of those houses are falling apart, with roofs caving in, wood rotting and walls collapsing.
Locals say that they used to see the Hollywood star walking around the neighbourhoods, with the organisation's office being in the centre of the Lower Ninth. Recently, he is no where to be seen.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, families who had lost everything were encouraged to return to the area and buy affordable housing built by Make It Right.
The houses were like nothing the community had seen before, with architect competitions deciding cutting edge designs. People praised Pitt for his actions, and for the first few years, the program made a difference despite running massively over budget.
Make It Right said it had spent $25 million by 2015, but another housing NGO (non Government Organization) claimed the charity had spent four times that amount.
Since the final home was built the mood in the area has soured, as some residents have complained about their houses, quite literally, falling apart.
Regeneration has ground to a halt and has even gone backward in some cases. The area is blighted with boarded-up homes that have been badly designed.
Only a third of pre-Katrina homeowners have returned.
Some residents have abandoned their Make It Right homes because they can't afford the repairs.
Even though residents bought the properties at a discount, their investments could be worthless in a few years time due to the houses' structural flaws.
Most homeowners who bought from the organisation have a 10-year guarantee.
But those nearing to the end of that warranty are worried.
In one case, a Make It Right Home abandoned by its owners had completely rotted away - with the walls and roof collapsed.
Constance Fowler, who had been campaigning for the home to be torn down after the couple who lived there moved out after, she claims, the wife became ill from exposure to severe mould.
Exclusive video and photos show that Fowler wasn't exaggerating about how bad it was living next to the destroyed home.
After months of complaining to the city council and Make It Right, it was finally taken down at the end of last month after being left to decompose for over two and a half years.
"Make It Right say this is the largest green community in the US where they've designed homes with solar panels, environmentally friendly insulation, construction material that is clean and healthy, but are they really?," Ms Fowler said.
"Look how many are boarded up now or abandoned? There wasn't as many boarded up back then in 2014 when I bought my Make It Right home for $150,000, it was constant building work by the organisation, they had a commitment and goal to build over 150 homes.
"The brochure they gave us made it look like you were joining a family, it was very attractive and there was a ten-year guarantee.
"The place next door, a woman was living there and she was getting sick from the mould, so they said move out, and we'll renovate your house.
"That was in Feb. 2016. When they removed the roof, I heard a worker say: 'We can't fix this.' No one has lived there since."
"In addition to personally being there, he continues to dedicate significant time and financial support to this project," said the source.
"This is an ongoing project for both Make It Right and for Brad - who has personally donated his time and millions of his own dollars to ensure the community is revitalised and the project continues as scheduled."
The source explained that after the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, leaders of the non-for-profit "conducted an internal review to make sure they were meeting their high standards," adding that "steps are being taken to remedy issues in homes that did not meet these standards".
The source said it was a "totally normal process," pointing out "as with any organisation, specifically one working on construction of homes, there are bound to be some problems and challenges".
"But Make It Right is working to remedy any issues," they added.
Ironically, around the time of the ten-year-anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015, Pitt spoke to the local newspaper, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and admitted the organisation was "incredibly naive".
"Just thinking we can build homes - how hard is that?" Pitt said.
But he thought it was still a success, saying: "I get this well of pride when I see this little oasis of colour and the solar panels.
"I drive into the neighbourhood and I see people on their porch, and I ask them how is their house treating them? And they say, 'Good'. And I say what's your utility bill? And they'll throw something out like, '24 bucks' or something, and I feel fantastic."
Fowler claims she's walked around the Lower Ninth speaking to residents, making a tally of all their complaints. She says that out of just over 100 homes, a minimum of 18 have needed new roofs.
The 65-year-old said that there are many others with problems, but have signed nondisclosure agreements. Some have walls that are coming away from the body of the house, others have sunken roofs, because they were built completely flat, even though it's in one of the most rain-hit areas of the United States, and slanted roofs are the norm.
There are staircases that have collapsed and a number of residents have complained about rotting porches.
In return for repairs, homeowners aren't allowed to badmouth Make It Right.
"There's 18 houses out of 109 that need to have their roofs changed, at least. I've been up and down the street speaking to people, these are meant to be new houses, only a few years old. Make It Right said that they would fix it, but it's all talk," Fowler said.
"One in six need new roofs, what is that telling you? They don't get it, they should have seen the problem years ago after building the first few, which had major issues.
"People have problems with porches, roofs, walls falling apart. There's six out of seven homes right next to me that have had significant repairs.
"But people have signed nondisclosures - to get repairs you had to sign them. I've asked so many people, they can only tell you they've signed one, but not tell you anything about what the repair was."
The Lower Ninth had the biggest area of black home ownership in the United States. Now residents face the problem that these new homes will lose their value in the next few years. In 2017, a Make It Right property hit the market for $US85,000 - well below its purchase price of about US$150,000.
It's increasingly difficult for people to gain contact with Make It Right, even other NGOs working in the area grimace at the name and said "good luck" with getting in contact, and complained that no one ever answered the phone. Since Brad Pitt sold his New Orleans property last year as part of divorce proceedings from Jolie, there's been a change in the organisation's structure and we were told by another non-profit that the new executive director had been installed to navigate "a sinking ship".
There are still only a few streets in the Lower Ninth with more than 10 homes on them. There are many more pockets of homes left in ruins by Katrina that have now been taken over by wild grass. There were around 50 churches in the neighbourhood before the hurricane, but now there's said to be only three active, and many more boarded up.
Laura Paul of the non-profit lowernine.org has been doing a similar job to Pitt's but on a minuscule budget of $US2 million. The non-profit has still managed to build 87 new homes and renovate hundreds of others that were in disrepair. She believes there's no malice on Pitt's part, but he didn't have the necessary expertise to handle rebuilding a neighbourhood with hurricane-resistant housing.
"I don't think Brad Pitt's intentions were anything but honourable," Ms Paul said. "He's a massive multi-million pound star, what is he going to know about dealing with housing and hurricanes?
"The houses are falling apart. New homes are going to have problems, a brand new structure is going to look rough round the edges pretty quick if you're not on top of it, and the people in them may not know how to look after them and not have the financial capability.
"Make It Right housing is very sexy. They weren't cheap, people think that Brad Pitt came down and gave these houses away, that didn't happen, they cost $150,000, that's around market value.
"It's not like they gave them away, you're talking about a company that went through $100 million, now try to even get them on the phone. I have no idea why now you can't get hold of them. They went through so much money.
"Compare it to us, who spent $2 million on hundreds of houses. That's $98 million more than us, we have only built just a few less than them.
"I think it's very interesting, it's a failed project, someone who tried to do the right thing, but didn't know how to build property, or how to manage it. They tried to do good, but they applied practices that don't work here."