Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation sues its former executive director

In the Wrong?

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation sues its former executive director

An early Make It Right house, pictured in 2008. (Mark Gstohl/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The legal saga embroiling the Make It Right Foundation, the Brad Pitt-founded housing nonprofit formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is entering what could be a messy new chapter.

As first reported by Doug MacCash for The Times­­–Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, the embattled foundation has sued former executive director Tom Darden III and other erstwhile top officials in New Orleans Civil District Court. The suit alleges that Darden and others misled fellow foundation leaders, Pitt included, and partook in widespread project mismanagement from 2007 through 2016. Per the suit, Darden and other former executives should be held responsible for any damages imposed by the court stemming from lawsuits over the “faulty construction or shoddy design” of Make It Right-built homes.

Established in 2007 by Pitt in close collaboration with architect and Cradle-to-Cradle guru William McDonough, Make It Right set out to build 150 affordable, ultra-sustainable homes in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, which had been decimated two years earlier by Katrina. Due to Pitt’s involvement and the public support/fundraising prowess of a bevy of bold-face Hollywood names, Make It Right received robust and immediate national attention. That attention swelled when an international roster of all-star architects, including Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban, David Adjaye, Thom Mayne, and others, were tapped to design some of the homes.

Construction of the single-family homes (109 were ultimately completed) commenced as planned in 2008 but highly publicized troubles soon followed.

As the first of the homes reached completion, the Lower 9th was transformed into a storm-battered architectural tourist destination of sorts as visitors descended via tour bus to rubberneck at the ultramodern elevated structures. However, displaced residents of the Lower 9th were hesitant to return to a neighborhood still largely cut off from the rest of the city by the storm and lacking basic services. Meanwhile, new arrivals to the rebounding city gravitated toward other neighborhoods. In 2014, it was revealed that roughly two-dozen Make It Right Homes were already in a severe state of decay due to the use of TimberSIL, a nontoxic wood product unable to withstand high levels of moisture. New Orleans, of course, is a city known for being on the steamy side. (Make It Right sued the manufacturer of TimberSIL in 2015.)

In 2018, serious complaints from homeowners came to light regarding electrical fires, mold, gas and water leaks, foundation issues, and the use of building materials that were substandard or incompatible with the temperamental New Orleans climate. These complaints yielded a proposed class-action lawsuit against the Make It Right by two homeowners. In October of last year, a deteriorating home designed by Adjaye Associates and completed in 2011 was deemed unsafe by the city and slated for demolition. This came less than two years after another rot-ravaged Make It Right home, this one designed by KieranTimberlake, was condemned and razed.

Beginning in 2018, lawyers for Pitt embarked on a campaign to remove the Oscar-winning actor-producer-humanitarian’s name from the class-action suit, arguing that he was not intimately involved in the design or construction of the supposedly disaster-proof structures, some of which had fallen into an advanced state of decay within a decade, and therefore should not be held responsible for what the suit referred to as “defectively and improperly constructed homes.” However, due to his status as the founder and main fundraiser of Make It Right, a federal judge rejected the request in October of 2019.

In an attempt to shift the blame of wrongdoing away from itself, Make It Right sued the project’s architect of record, John C. Williams, in September 2018, claiming that he was at fault for the problem-plagued homes. Williams fired back, referring to the “baseless” lawsuit as “shocking and insulting.” Per the latest reporting by The Times­­–Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, the lawsuit targeting Darden and others alleges that donations meant to be used for the immediate construction of new homes were instead tied up by foundation executives in the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program. This prompted an extended pause in work which then resulted in a “build blitz” when the funds were made available. During the furiously paced construction period, corners were cut, and questionable design choices were made, according to the suit.