Melba Leggett, 54, was just one of the many displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The home she grew up in was among 5,300 houses destroyed in the Lower Ninth Ward, the mostly residential neighborhood that took the greatest amount of damage following the disaster. Her family had been living in the area for decades. The property was purchased generation from generation.
“We left town for Baker, La., for higher ground more or less. So many people did the same thing; it became overcrowded with relatives. I had my daughter come pick us up from North Carolina,” said Leggett. “That’s where we stayed for the next three years.”
The progress to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward has been slow. Five years after Katrina, approximately 4,000 homes remain unlivable.
“We have to figure out a way to get more resources and help residents that are interested in coming back and rebuilding,” said Jon D. Johnson, city councilman for the Lower Ninth Ward. “The community consisted primarily of working class and elderly people who are on fixed income. They simply could not afford to come back and rebuild even though they would like to do so.”
Even though the local government has taken measures to restore Lower Ninth Ward, many efforts have not been effective. The infrastructure is still heavily damaged, businesses are small in number, and services are still low. Only one elementary school operates in the area at this point in time, and while Johnson insists a high school is in the works, many children are still being bussed miles from home to attend school.
In response, a hand full of non-profits have sprung up in the last few years to help the neighborhood regain its original status, including the Common Ground Collective, a group of volunteers who were the first to begin gutting houses. However, the most notable program is the Make It Right Foundation.
Make It Right started in late 2007 after actor Brad Pitt toured the Lower Ninth Ward’s extensive damage and saw how little progress had been made in rebuilding the area. The foundation was established to build 150 affordable, green and sustainable homes. To date, 21 architectural firms have donated designs and Make It Right has raised millions to get the building process started.
While Make It Right may have an advantage in bypassing the normal routes of governmental bureaucracy, they find themselves facing the same problems. While they originally intended to have the 150 homes built by this month, they only plan to have 80 finished by next spring.
“We only build homes for people who lived in the neighborhood prior to the storm,” said Taylor Royle, communications director at Make It Right. “We wanted to build these homes as fast as possible and that was our goal, but one thing we found was that families displaced had gone all over the country from as close as Baton Rouge and Houston to as far as Alaska and Toronto. Finding all of these people and asking them if they wanted to come back to the neighborhood took more time than we expected.
“Secondly, people who were living check to check before the storm who lost their jobs and livelihoods were pushed into debt. We have a whole staff of social workers on hand who help people get their credit in order, help them get more hours at work, and recover titles to assist them in getting qualified for a loan to buy the house. It’s not as easy as just putting up a house and expecting people to come home. It actually takes a long time. Getting people qualified for loans can take up to a year and a half.”
To help get the economically-devastated residents back into their homes, Make It Right finds non-predatory loans that are no more than one-third of monthly income. Royle stated that the average returning family can only afford $75,000 while their average house built costs $150,000. To fill in the gap, as long as the families continue to make payments toward their loans, the foundation will use their donations to pay off the rest of the building money. These make incredibly nice homes with hurricane-strength features and stilts to prevent flooding much more affordable for returning families.
While the Lower Ninth Ward still remains largely destroyed, it is Royle’s and Johnson’s hope that these small initiatives will add up to where there is enough incentive for families to return on their own and for other groups to continue rebuilding the area.
“Part of our mission is to be a catalyst for rebuilding in the neighborhood,” Royle said. “One hundred and fifty homes is really just a drop in a bucket. What we wanted to do is to start rebuilding and have other groups come in the area to contribute. We are seeing more and more non-profits coming to rebuild each year.”
Johnson says that he is glad foundations like Make It Right exist. “They definitely have to be commended for stepping up to the plate and making a very strong and obvious commitment to the community by bringing very unique houses to the neighborhood that I think have really served as an incentive for other people to come back and start building.”
Along with the steps for a new high school, other programs are being implemented to help bring businesses that provide basic services back into the community, as well as the construction of a new $15-$20 million community center. It’s Johnson’s thoughts that these efforts will leave a positive impression on families in the Lower Ninth Ward and the ones who are wishing to return.
Leggett is glad that her neighbors informed her of Make It Right. “We got in touch and got our stuff together in order to get the house. I love my new home. I have the best house. It is inviting, homely and very family-oriented.”
While progress has been slow in restoring the Lower Ninth Ward by any one group, it is the accumulation of multiple efforts which are gaining speed in rebuilding the catastrophically flooded region.