On March 13, The New Republic published a flawed and inaccurate account of Make It Right’s work. Here is our response from Tom Darden, Make It Right’s Executive Director. – Taylor Royle
I was disappointed to read Lydia Depillis’ mischaracterizations of Make It Right’s work and the Lower 9th Ward in her article, “If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come” on The New Republic’s website.
A few points the author got right: Make It Right could build conventional homes with fewer green features for less money in the Lower 9th Ward. By spending less money on each house, we could build more houses. Building in an area of the city that was less devastated would be easier.
What the author seems to miss is that we deliberately set out to help New Orleans’ homeowners who were struggling the most to rebuild, even though we knew it would be challenging and expensive. While the academic debate about the fate of the Lower 9th Ward raged, families were already returning to the neighborhood, living in toxic FEMA trailers and planning to rebuild. These homeowners had decided to come home, but lacked the resources to rebuild in a way that would be safe and sustainable. Make It Right decided not to try to build as many houses as possible, but to design and build the best houses possible for this community.
Like all areas vulnerable to flooding, building in the Lower 9th Ward carries risks that need to be considered. Some people believe that rebuilding anywhere in New Orleans is futile given climate change, sea level rise and the increasing frequency and intensity of storms. We believe that New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward can be rebuilt better and safer.
Part of Make It Right’s challenge is to design resilient homes that reduce the risk of flooding and damage from storms. Combined with the strengthened levee system that offers better protection for the Lower 9th Ward, the storm-resistant features on Make It Right’s homes help mitigate the threat of future storm damage. Homeowners face less risk now than prior to Katrina. Since we began building in 2008, our homes have weathered two hurricanes with only minor damage to a few houses.
The article also implies the design of our homes is out of context in New Orleans, an uneducated position at best. More than 30 distinct architectural styles make up what is typically considered traditional New Orleans design; all were considered modern at some point. Our founder invited some of the most creative minds in modern architecture to design our homes, from firms right here in New Orleans to Ghana, Japan and Chile. These architects volunteered their time and expertise, many spending years collaborating with homeowners on their designs.
Furthermore, in the area where we work, pre-Katrina homes were not the classic Creole cottages often associated with New Orleans. They were post-World War II, slab-on-grade, ranch-style houses that could not withstand high winds or storm surge. We are not replacing historic New Orleans houses with modern design; we do not claim our designs should be built in architecturally historic neighborhoods or anywhere outside of their original design context.
Like Ms. Guy, whom the author interviewed, each homeowner chooses their home design. We have found that homeowners love the designs they choose and we have not received requests for a house design that mimics the traditional style. By the way, regarding Ms. Guy’s home: both the author’s original text stating that the home has three bedrooms and the correction stating the home has two bedrooms are wrong. Ms. Guy’s home has four bedrooms.
To build the best possible homes, Make It Right also incorporates new building technologies. Typically these are not, as the author claims, experimental. We use new materials available off-the-shelf at local retailers. By using new technology in our homes, we can often improve quality and reduce cost. In rare instances, we are not satisfied with the performance of a particular product or material. When that happens, our commitment to the homeowner is to fix what is wrong and share that information with the building community. We believe our approach drives innovation and that requires reasonable trial and error.
Our work is helping drive breakthroughs in green building and is recognized by many in the industry. What we are learning not only helps lower the cost of our houses, but makes green building more accessible and affordable for others. Builders in New Orleans and around the country have thanked us for being willing to absorb upfront costs associated with making green building practices more ubiquitous.
Make It Right set a goal – not a promise as the author claims – to build at least 150 houses. If we can build more and if our work catalyzes additional rebuilding, commercial services and new infrastructure, all the better as far as we are concerned. Indeed, the City of New Orleans responded to the density we helped develop in a 20-block area by installing new streets, after we built the homes. The new streets are made in part of pervious concrete that reduces runoff by absorbing water. The city should be applauded for developing some of the most innovative infrastructure in the country, not chastised for it.
Many retail services are not available in the Lower 9th Ward yet, but our work is not finished. Our mission is to rebuild communities, not just houses. Commercial services will return to the Lower 9th Ward or we will build them ourselves. The author points out the lack of grocery stores and public services, then argues that the city should invest resources elsewhere, which makes no sense to us. The full impact of investments made by the city, private businesses and nonprofits will not be evident until commitments are made. Last week, the city announced plans for a new fire station and a rebuilt community center, just blocks from the Make It Right houses. Clearly we aren’t the only ones who believe significant investments such as ours will help ensure the long-term recovery of the community.
The author writes that, “In a wrenching deviation from its original mission, the non-profit has decided to open up to buyers who didn’t live in the neighborhood before Katrina.” Again, this is simply not true. To be exact, we have opened our program to 15 police officers, firefighters, EMTs and teachers, based on eligibility requirements of a HUD program. We did this in response to requests from existing homeowners who want to welcome new residents to their neighborhood.
Another fundamental inaccuracy in the article relates to the cost of our homes. To date, we have spent about $24 million on the construction of 90 homes in New Orleans, not $45 million as the author claims, and our organization does much more than build houses. We provide homeownership and financial counseling services to hundreds of people in need, offer affordable mortgages, build and maintain green spaces, parks and playgrounds throughout the neighborhood, install solar systems on hundreds of houses built by other nonprofits and help raise the green building performance of local builders and other nonprofits by sharing lessons learned (including with the organizations the author quotes in her article).
We also are sharing what we have learned by taking on additional projects for communities in need around the country, like Newark, NJ and Kansas City, MO. We raise money for those new endeavors separately from the Lower 9th Ward project. While we use a portion of that funding to help cover our operating costs, the new projects do not pay for costs in New Orleans as the author claims.
We welcome comparisons to other builders in New Orleans, but those comparisons should be fair. As noted above, the author’s estimated cost per unit for Make It Right’s homes was completely wrong. The author uses the inaccurate estimate of the cost of a Make It Right house and compares it to Providence Housing, an older, larger-scale developer that also builds multi-family apartment buildings and Lowernine.org, a non-profit that fixes up houses with volunteer labor. The services those groups provide are important — we believe everyone working to rebuild New Orleans is in it together. But the author states that Providence Housing “has built about 1,800 homes and apartments at roughly one-third Make It Right’s per-unit cost.” Comparing a multi-family development project to our work is uneducated and unfair and the author’s claim of “roughly one-third” per unit cost is, again, woefully inaccurate. Comparing only Providence’s single-family units to Make It Right’s homes would be more accurate, and our homes still would have slightly higher construction costs. Of course, our higher upfront costs also result in thousands of dollars of energy savings for our homeowners every year, an approach widely recognized as one of many benefits of green building.
We understand how tempting it is to take shots at an organization with a high-profile founder. However, we were truly surprised that a magazine with The New Republic’s reputation would stoop to shoddy journalism and smear tactics. We welcome any genuine criticism and open discussion – we’ve even built a platform on our website to share our lessons learned and encourage feedback – anyone can join here. But the sort of malignant distortions that the author presents in this piece distract us from our mission, dishearten hard-working staff and negatively impact people who have already suffered too much.
Make It Right