Counting Intentions

If you could count intentions, package them up and gift them, the residents who had their homes rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, following the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, would be wealthy. Instead, the 109 property owners of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans are taking legal action against the Hollywood superstar for “unfair trade practices, deception, fraud and negligence.”

Just a little earlier this month, another home in the development was demolished. As Federal courts pull apart the issues, it will be interesting to see how judges view the dynamics and assign responsibility. On the one hand you have the wealthy part-time philanthropist, full-time mega-movie-star, versus a group of mortgage paying homeowners, but then throw in architects with a penchant for environmental activism, builders, suppliers and the crime scene quickly gets muddied. The setting has changed from what Oprah.com describes here in 2010:

Leggett-Barnes and her family are some of the first homeowners in what will become a 150-house community constructed by the nonprofit Make It Right foundation, established by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build environmentally sound residences for low- and middle-income families. “We’re cracking the code on affordable green homes,” says Pitt, who envisions the Lower Ninth neighborhood as “a ‘proof-of-concept’ for low-income green building nationally, maybe even worldwide.”

The plan started with everyone on the same page. The recently homeless needed to return to plots of land, which for some, had been in their families for a couple of generations. Brad Pitt pledged 5 million dollars to take the edge off costs and provide the seed money for what ends up being a 27 million dollar project (that’s $247K per house). But then a new public objective starts to emerge, one driven by an environmental passion. Oprah.com notes:

A Make It Right house is eco-friendly from top to bottom, using at least 70 percent less energy than a conventional house of the same size. “We don’t just want to make homes ‘less bad’ for the environment,” Pitt says. “We want them instead to have an environmental benefit.” Thanks to their ventilation systems and solar technology, Make It Right houses emulate trees, purifying the air rather than polluting it and harnessing the sun’s rays to produce more energy than they consume. The homes are available exclusively to people who lived in the Lower Ninth before Katrina, and Make It Right guides families through the financing process.

It wouldn’t be the first time two objectives were tackled simultaneously: Help families rebuild their homes and make the structures energy efficient. Both admirable. But don’t miss that last sentence, ‘help them through the financing process.’ And just like that we’re off the philanthropy playing field and into the private market game. In this venue the owners are expecting to purchase from a developer, not an actor-philanthropist-activist. They sign for a mortgage. The most common number for the debt was around $150K, bringing the final cost per house to somewhere around $397K.

Just for comparison here is a listing for a new construction home in New Orleans posted on Realtor.com today.

Even at $397K (not including lot cost) one might say the extra money was well spent on energy conservation measures and intended health benefits. One might say that, if the properties hadn’t started deteriorating within a few short years.

By 2015, as most construction concluded, the project had cost almost $27 million. But complaints about the construction and materials used in the homes had already emerged.

These transactions had a philanthropic and environmental and private market component to them. The additional inflow of funds to cover the environmental objectives came in, but the new owners of these properties do not appear to have engaged as critical consumers for the core product. They didn’t check into the materials or the mechanicals or the plans. Just talk to a builder rep if you question whether consumers who build with them hover (daily) to ensure they are receiving what was written up in their purchase agreement. Perhaps due to the power of stardom, or the actual dollars being spent on their behalf, the home-buyers seem to have stepped aside and allowed others to do their bidding. Until as the New Orleans Advocate reports:

In September 2018, homeowners Jennifer Decuir and Lloyd Francis sued Make It Right for what they alleged was deficient construction that caused mold, poor air quality, structural failures, electrical malfunctions, plumbing mishaps, rotting wood and faulty heating, ventilation and cooling.

The dynamics of philanthropy allows for an individual (or group) with extra funds to choose a public need and steer their resources accordingly. The recipients are asked only to consider reciprocating at some future date, should they find themselves in a similar situation. If the courts place the blame on Brad Pitt will that inhibit the flow of goods and services from the wealthy to those in need for fear of liability? Were the end consumers not responsible in a buyer-beware type of way to check out what they were buying? From what the articles (USA Today, NPR), they had owned and maintained homes in the past.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The architect John C Williams collected $4 million in fees. There were permits and inspectors and building codes. And maybe some blame should end up at the lenders’ door for not questioning the innovative, but untested systems, going into the project. In the end they are on the hook for the paper if a homeowner walks and abandons their property. But mostly, in the for-profit market, the relationship between the developer-builder and the home buyers establish the acceptable combination of durability, green components and price.

The problem wasn’t a lack of intentions. The problem was that the philanthropist-activists bypassed the marketplace and all the small interactions that make it up. The fatal flaw was the thought that with enough money, and passion, all the feedback and tussles between consumers, and inspectors, and building code committees, and brokers, and city planners, and developers, and real estate agents, and electricians,…that all those players interacting in a market setting, just doesn’t matter.

The market continues to shuffled through the consumer choices when judging the environmental impact of products. Standards are set by producers of furnaces and A/C units; power companies offer home energy audits and neighbor consumption comparison; neighbors talk to each other; contractors share incentives; all in the effort to advance a public goal of energy savings. But at each step that goal must be incorporated into the overall integrity of the purchase at hand, or homes will fall apart just like those in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Praise for Brad Pitt remains high, and the contention remains that his intentions were and are completely genuine. It looks, however, as if he will pay dearly for moving toward an ambition without vetting it through the market system. This story shows us that it is not enough to imagine a better world, and poof! It will happen. Progress takes the engagement of all players, giving feedback through action and pricing. Progress depends on markets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s