Before the fresh memory of the 5th anniversary of hurricane Katrina fades from memory, some reflection is warranted.
We should consider the resurrection and rebirth of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, a community decimated by Katrina's rage and fury in which four thousand homes were leveled. We must never forget those bodies on the streets, and people standing on roofs screaming for help. Or those thousands huddled together in the Astrodome in squalor and hunger, shock and disbelief. Or those toxic home trailers provided by President Bush, who proclaimed, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" to Mike Brown as he presided over FEMA's catastrophic failure. All images for the ages.
People were forced to leave Louisiana by the thousands as their lives, families and communities were left in ruins. There was little to keep them there, especially in the Lower 9th Ward, where nothing remained - the poor hit the hardest, while the French Quarter was spared.
Rebuilding N.O. was moving too slowly for Brad Pitt, and so the MAKE IT RIGHT FOUNDATION was born. In 2006, Pitt gathered a group of experts in N.O. to brainstorm on how to build green, affordable housing on a large scale, and to assist those most in need after the devastating aftermath of Katrina. The Lower 9th Ward became the mission -- to rebuild lives and their community -- and with a combined $10 million donation from Pitt and film producer Steve Bing, the foundation was created. Others involved in the foundation are Angelina Jolie and Ellen DeGeneres and Mike Holmes of Holmes on Homes.
That was then and this is now. Fourteen homes have been completed and are now inhabited by formerly displaced families, with nineteen more under construction. Former residents are coming home to new, one family and duplex homes in the Lower 9th Ward designed by an international group of architects who donated cutting edge designs of houses that would resist floods and were sustainable, affordable and energy-efficient. Employing new construction techniques, new technologies and materials, the plan is to build 150 homes. Gardens of various types are already springing up as a community begins to rise.
The doors swung open on these new homes last November, offering, in Mr. Pitt's words, "a hand up and not a hand out" to the residents of the Lower 9th. Each home has solar panels on the roofs and are energy-efficient throughout, at low cost, and more importantly, these unique looking homes stand on stilts to deal with any future flooding that might threaten them. And there is even a 21st century, sustainable playground for the children. The first totally energy efficient community in our nation is wining awards for its pioneering creativity. A model to be emulated nationally.
How the homes are financed adds additional cutting edge smarts to an already impressive project. The home buyer is expected to contribute as much as possible from their own resources to cover the purchase of their home. The average home price of a single family house $150,000 and a duplex $200,000. The prices vary by size and design. At closing, the average price is $75,000, made up from grants and outside mortgage financing. Make It Right covers the gap. A financial services operation is part of the foundation's structure and offers affordable mortgages to those who don't qualify for a loan from a private bank, but can afford monthly payments. In addition the foundation offers loans with no payment or interest that are forgiven over a period of time in exchange for the home owner's commitment to remain in the home as an owner-occupant. All of this is set in motion with an online application to the Make It Right Foundation.
The core partners involved with Make It Right include such local, national and international organizations and companies as: Cherokee Gives Back Foundation, the non profit arm of Cherokee Investment Partners, a firm that specializes in remediation and sustainable redevelopment of environmentally impaired properties; Graft, an innovative architectural firm that Brad Pitt has worked with on other projects around the world; William McDonough + Partners, a world leader in environmental architecture; and John C. Williams Architects, a N.O. architecture firm brought in as the project's executive architect.
BP has appropriated the phrase "make it right" (for whom?) as its rallying cry to rebuild its shattered image -- I can only hope they have made a huge donation to Mr. Pitt's foundation?
Meanwhile, Make It Right Foundation is an extraordinary laboratory for innovation and creative design in building a green-energy, efficient community at affordable prices. This did not escape notice on Capitol Hill when in March 2009 Brad Pitt met with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and head of the House's Katrina-Rita Task force. But this was merely a press conference. It is time to invite Mr. Pitt back and have him meet with the Deficit Commission to talk about rebuilding new, 21st century communities along with other infrastructures. Could a Marshall Plan emerge as a template to be used nationwide? This would certainly plump up local economies and create jobs. Surely Brad Pitt and his team of professional innovators could offer ideas and more than a few suggestions.
Clearly the success of this foundation more than suggests it will have to extend its commitment beyond building 150 homes in the Lower 9th Ward. They should raise the stakes and continue building until they reach 1000 homes, 25 percent of what was lost in Hurricane Katrina.