As Tropical Storm Florence churns through the Carolinas, Brad Pitt is weathering accusations that he and his foundation built substandard homes for New Orleans residents who lost their houses in Hurricane Katrina.
"I made a promise to the folks of the Lower Ninth to help them rebuild – it is a promise I intend to keep," Pitt said through a spokesperson, USA Today reported.
In a lawsuit filed last Friday, homeowners said Pitt and his organization Make It Right engaged in unfair trade practices, deception, fraud and negligence.
"This lawsuit is about making Make It Right make it right," Ron Austin, a lawyer representing the homeowners, told NPR. "Essentially, these people are paying mortgages on homes that are rotting away, have little to no resale value and it's questionable whether or not some of them are inhabitable."
The houses were devised to be sustainable, storm-safe and vibrant — a "healthy home" for a community that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But the lawsuit contends that many people's homes are riddled with problems, including rotten wood, faulty HVACs, bad electrical and plumbing systems, mold infestations and poor construction methods.
"There are 109 houses and we have yet to find anybody who is not having some sort of a problem," Austin said.
Make It Right did not notify residents or change course when staff became aware that defective materials were being used to construct the dwellings, the lawsuit alleges. Calls for repairs went largely ignored, and engineering inspection reports in 2016, 2017 and 2018 that would have provided homeowners insights into their properties were not turned over, it says.
Instead, occupants were asked by staff to sign nondisclosure, arbitration and assignment of rights agreements that waived their ability to speak out and hold the foundation accountable, Austin said. "The promise was, 'We'll get out there and start fixing stuff but before we come, you have to sign these documents.' "
He went on to say that many homeowners signed the papers in duress, as they worried that repairs would not be addressed if they didn't sign. "It wasn't a choice," he said.
Make It Right has not responded to NPR's requests for comment.
Pitt founded the nonprofit organization in 2007, after visiting the Lower 9th Ward. After contributing and raising millions, construction began in June 2008. The houses were built by internationally renowned architects and cost $150,000 on average, according to the foundation's website. "We're cracking the code on affordable green homes," he said.
The structures were not free for residents. Make It Right offered them assistance funds, help with closing costs and forgivable loans – along with the designs for homes.
The actor, who is also a donor and board member of the nonprofit, said that an "extensive review" of homes began in 2015, a decade after the hurricane ravaged New Orleans. "Thanks to the dedication of the MIR team, we have been coordinating repairs of homes experiencing problems since early 2018 and have total faith in the team on the ground to see this through," he said.
Catherine Hilton, another attorney representing the homeowners, said complaints in the 9th Ward go back as early as 2009. "Until MIR provides detailed renovation plans on each home, MIR is not adequately addressing the situation," she said in a statement emailed to NPR.
Pitt's heart was in the right place, the attorneys said, and the community is still grateful for his help. After all, people used to wear "Brad Pitt for mayor" shirts.
"I refuse to blame Brad Pitt," resident LilJose Marie Tompkins told The New Orleans Advocate. "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."