Government & Politics

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation comes up short so far in KC housing promise

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation announced plans last year to build up to 50 houses in the Manheim Park neighborhood. That has not begun. The vacant parcel on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue is owned by the foundation but remains empty.
Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation announced plans last year to build up to 50 houses in the Manheim Park neighborhood. That has not begun. The vacant parcel on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue is owned by the foundation but remains empty. deulitt@kcstar.com

In Manheim Park, residents and community leaders wonder when actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation will follow through on its promise for the neighborhood.

Early in 2015, the New Orleans-based nonprofit announced that it would take the lead on developing six to 50 new single-family homes, starting on 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue.

The announcement was greeted with much fanfare, owing to Pitt’s star power and the foundation’s work in 2013 to convert the abandoned Bancroft Elementary School building into new apartments in Manheim Park.

Make It Right said last year that it would begin work on the houses by May 2015. The houses would incorporate the sleek architectural designs and energy-efficient features found in homes it built in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Nearly a year and a half later, little progress is apparent. The Make It Right Foundation purchased six parcels in Manheim Park from Aug. 18, 2015, to Feb. 4, 2016, but no construction has started.

The foundation offered no clarity on its plans.

Nearly three weeks ago, James Mazzuto, chief operating officer for the Make It Right Foundation, canceled an interview with The Kansas City Star shortly before it was scheduled to begin. He has since not responded to several subsequent requests for comment.

Tim Duggan, a Kansas City architect who had been director of innovations for the Make It Right Foundation, no longer works for the organization.

Duggan declined to discuss the foundation or his departure from it.

“I have not been with Make It Right for some time,” he said.

Local figures who looked forward to Make It Right’s continued work in Manheim Park voiced concerns about the delay.

“I can’t believe they haven’t replaced him (Duggan) with someone else,” said Rodney Knott, a former Manheim Park Neighborhood Association president and director of nonprofit ReEngage, which helped with the Bancroft school rehabilitation. “That’s troubling.”

Gloria Fisher-Ortiz, executive director of community development corporation Westside Housing, sounded optimistic that Make It Right would realize its visions for Manheim Park. She said she has been in communication with Make It Right by email in recent weeks.

“I see it as just a time delay,” Fisher-Ortiz said. “For me, an unfortunate time delay.”

That’s because Westside Housing rehabilitated three houses in Manheim Park near the Bancroft school to U.S. Green Building Council LEED specifications.

Fisher-Ortiz wished her rehab project could have occurred in conjunction with Make It Right’s work on new housing in the neighborhood. The two projects coming up at the same time would have been a symbol of revitalization for the East Side neighborhood.

“If they didn’t own the land, if they didn’t reach out to me in an email form, I’d be more inclined to say I don’t know what’s going on,” Ortiz-Fisher said.

But the Make It Right Foundation appears to be in the midst of upheaval.

Its longtime CEO, Tom Darden, left the organization. Dianne Cleaver, executive director of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, a nonprofit tasked with carrying out a Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce “Big 5” goal of rehabilitating East Side neighborhoods, said she understood Make It Right’s board of directors has also experienced turnover.

“I think they have seven or nine board members, and four of them are gone, they’re being replaced,” Cleaver said. “So they seem to be just in some restructuring, directional challenges.”

The Make It Right Foundation earned plaudits nationally when Brad Pitt established the organization in 2007. The organization’s mission at the time targeted the Lower Ninth Ward, a region along the Industrial Canal where levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading to disastrous flooding there.

The foundation has built about 110 of those homes, according to Thom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief, a New Orleans advocacy group assisting with post-hurricane home construction and wetlands restoration.

Pepper was part of the Lower Ninth Ward Stakeholders Coalition in New Orleans. The Make It Right Foundation came into the ward’s rebuilding project with much fanfare.

But Pepper said the foundation has experienced its issues over the years. Pepper said residents didn’t like the design of some of the new houses, which let in little natural light. Architectural problems, namely flat roofs in a rainy climate, forced Make It Right to rebuild some of its houses, according to Pepper.

Make It Right also used lumber from Timber Treatment Technologies, which marketed its environmentally friendly glass-infused wood products for decks and exterior features on some of the homes. But the wood started rotting quickly, leading to Make It Right filing a lawsuit against the lumber company.

More than design and lumber issues, Pepper said Make It Right spent a fortune on its homebuilding projects.

According to a 2013 article by architecture news website ArchDaily, Make It Right spent $24 million to build the 86 houses it had in New Orleans at the time, which works out to nearly $280,000 per dwelling. Make It Right’s website said the average size of its houses in New Orleans is 1,400 square feet.

Pepper said he told Make It Right that it could build energy-efficient houses “without going through all those hoops” of obtaining LEED certification.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority in December published a report on how it allocated $30 million of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds awarded to it by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Make It Right leveraged $3.8 million of NSP funds to build 44 houses in partnership with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, making Make It Right the largest single recipient of NSP funds. In all, Make It Right’s budget was $13.8 million for those 44 houses, or $315,040 per house.

Project Home Again, a nonprofit community development organization serving New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, used $3.3 million in NSP funds to build 60 houses on a $12.7 million budget, or $212,984 per house.

Given the $315,040 in construction costs for the 44 houses it built with NSP funds, that works out to $225 per square foot, given the average 1,400-square-foot size of houses Make It Right said it built in New Orleans.

Laura Paul, executive director of housing nonprofit Lowernine.org, said her organization’s housing construction costs reach about $50 a square foot. Paul emphasizes that her organization isn’t a straight comparison to Make It Right, owing to her use of volunteer labor and donated materials. But she adds that energy-efficient house construction in New Orleans can be accomplished for $120 to $140 a square foot.

Pepper said he was surprised when he learned Make It Right set his sights upon projects in Kansas City and an effort to build housing for disabled veterans in Newark, N.J.

“We were like, what do you mean, Newark and Kansas City?” Pepper said. “You haven’t finished what you said you were going to do here and you’re expanding into other markets. What’s going on?”

Local officials have similar questions about Make It Right’s work in Kansas City.

“I contacted the folks at Make It Right and they said give them about 45 days,” Cleaver said. “They’re reassessing. This was two to three weeks ago and it was an email. I called two or three people. Via email, they responded that they were trying to reassess the situation.”

And if Make It Right doesn’t follow through on Manheim Park?

“Well, I think we get together with others and the city and try to see if there is a developer who will bring this thing to fruition,” Cleaver said.

Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt

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