Disaster rebuilding, celebrity style, solution or problem?

Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation is planning to build 150 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  The housing effort was designed to help former Lower Ninth residents return to their community after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.  The houses are built to be “affordable,” state-of-the-art green, sustainable, and hurricane resistant.  One such “Pitt House” is built to “float” in rising floodwaters.  The homes have also become something of a tourist attraction, with bus tours designating them as a specific destination.  This could increase the amount of commercial activity in the neighborhood.

http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/travel/29cultured.html?scp=2&sq=Housing&st=cse

Unfortunately, while this seems like a great step forward in the hurricane rebuilding effort, the program may not be as great as made out to be.  In many ways, it may ultimately displace the residents of the community it is trying to house.

For one, the houses are not that affordable and the prices of the program homes could force former residents out of the neighborhood.  While the Make it Right housing is only available to former residents, Pitt’s other housing program, Global Green, is available to anyone and also operates in the Lower Ninth.  Some of these houses are going for as high as $175,000.  To a former Ninth Ward resident who lost everything in the storm, this is most likely unaffordable.   Furthermore, if the Make It Right homes are unaffordable (in acquiring or maintaining) to the target population, they will go unoccupied.  The homes could then be crowded out or replaced by the Global Green homes, since they are open to a wider, more affluent population. Thus, low-income residents may ultimately be ousted from the community by higher-income speculators, changing the community dynamic entirely.

Another problem with the Pitt homes is their design.  The architecture is very modern, and the homes that are built look like tributes to the Avant-Garde.  Their color and design make them a bit disconcerting in a community that was once full of traditional New Orleans style architecture.  Moreover, the homes lack the ground-level porches that helped define the Ninth Ward’s communal and neighborly spirit. The lack of assimilation and the neglect of traditional area architecture cause the community to become disjointed.

The design not only disrupts the aesthetic of the community, but also takes significantly longer to build.  Since the program’s inception in 2007, only 15 homes have been built and are occupied, 10% of planned development.  That means that in two years, only fifteen families have recovered under the Make It Right Program.  This is not a rate that could be considered successful, especially when many Ninth Ward residents face homelessness while struggling to secure housing.

We need to talk away some important lessons from this project. First, Brad Pitt is to be applauded for stepping up to address the housing problem in the Ninth Ward. It is important that people take an interest and become involved in the disaster recover effort.  However, recovery programs should consider all of the implications of a development before proceeding. Pitt’s houses are clearly only a starting point for the real solution to rehousing low-income hurricane survivors.  As mentioned before, the Make It Right houses take a substantial amount of time to complete. We must get quickly to large scale, time-efficient rebuilding efforts.  It is important to remember that policy makers are watching and learning from these disaster recovery efforts.  Therefore, Mr. Pitt could have done far more for this community and the nation if he had produced a model to building substantial developments of quality, affordable housing in a time efficient manner.  It is a disgrace that the Pitt homes stand out so starkly in a sea of empty lots. The displaced residents of the Ninth Ward are not asking for architectural majesty, they are asking for a roof over their heads.

We need to take away some important lessons from this project. First, Brad Pitt is to be applauded for stepping up to address the housing problem in the Ninth Ward. It is important that people take an interest and become involved in the disaster recover effort.  However, housing programs should consider all of the implications of a development before proceeding. It is important to remember that policy makers are watching and learning from these disaster recovery efforts.  Pitt’s houses are clearly only a starting point for the real solution to rehousing low-income hurricane survivors.  As mentioned before, a minimal number of Make It Right houses take a substantial amount of time to complete. We must get quickly to large scale, time-efficient rebuilding efforts.  We need a model for building a substantial number of quality, affordable housing units in a time efficient manner. It is a problem that the Pitt homes stand out so starkly in a sea of empty lots.

Next, we must remember that architecture alone, and especially architecture not fully informed by the residents of the homes and the community in which they live is not a solution in and of itself.  Homes are the foundation for communal activity, and therefore the residents whom inhabit these homes must have a say in their design and aesthetic.  The lack of a front porch, to some, may seem like a minor detail. However, to a community where the front porch is not only a symbol, but an institution of tradition and communal values, the lack of a porch is extremely distressing.  By taking away these symbols and institutions, and the traditional architecture that supports them, the modern designs risk tearing the stitching which sows the neighborhood into a community.  Housing programs would do well to address the values and norms of the community in which they wish to rebuild.

Last but not least, this project reminds us that disaster rebuilds must be made affordable to the former residents.  Projects assisting low-income neighborhoods should assess and combat conditions, including unaffordability, which could lead to future gentrification in the recovery area. The Make it Right homes could have a landslide cascade which ultimately displaces former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward further. If the houses are unaffordable to the former residents, whether in acquisition or maintenance, they will go empty. With no one buying the Make it Right homes, Mr. Pitt will have to change the rules of the Make it Right homes to allow non-former residents to buy, or build more of the higher-end, less regulated Global Green homes in the neighborhood.  Being the modern architectural and technological marvels that they are, the homes will surely attract white, upper-middle class demand.  Commercial real-estate developers will surely see this trend and, as a result, try to develop blocks of the neighborhood that were not affected by storm.  What happens next?  The Lower Ninth becomes synonymous with day spas and lattes and there are more displaced poor people than before.  Housing programs must absolutely make units affordable to former residents of a disaster-affected area. If not, the program will clearly do more harm than good.

One thought on “Disaster rebuilding, celebrity style, solution or problem?

  1. Factory built homes that immulate the architecture and design of the homes in the area are the only viable affordable solution. We have placed several hundred homes in the area since Katrina and over a thousand in the state. Front porches are a must.

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