Perhaps celebrity-led affordable housing is not the answer

Actor Brad Pitt created a foundation that built 109 affordable housing units in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to one observer, the project has not gone well:

Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation built 109 eye-catching and affordable homes in New Orleans for a community where many people were displaced by damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now this housing development is in disarray. The vast majority of the recently constructed homes are riddled with construction-related problems that have led to mold, termites, rotting wood, flooding and other woes.

At least six are boarded up and abandoned. Many residents have filed lawsuits that are still pending. That is, a nonprofit that built houses with input from Frank Gehry and other prominent architects amid much fanfare for survivors of one disaster then ushered in another disaster…

Brad Pitt, who took credit for launching this organization in 2007 and often served as its public face in subsequent years, was still listed as a board member as of 2018.

Pitt’s lawyers argued that he could not be sued over the housing development’s failings, but a judge ruled in 2019 that the movie star would remain a defendant because of his role as Make It Right’s founder and chief fundraiser.

Housing, plus the decades of policies and history undergirding it in particular locations and in the broader sense, is difficult to address.

This proposed solution is one employed in many American sectors. A celebrity comes in and lends their name and resources to a project. I think I showed a class a documentary Pitt narrated about efforts to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.

What happens in the end because of the efforts of the celebrity? Here, the outcome does not sound good: the homes are in disrepair and court cases are pending. The homes that were intended to help are their own problem.

To repeat, tackling affordable housing, even with the help of a megastar, is no easy task.

Poor residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina moved to better places

Sociologists typically find poor city residents have difficulty leaving poor neighborhoods but a large event like Hurricane Katrina may provide a bigger push:

One of the tragedies of Katrina was that so many of New Orleans’ residents were forced to move. But the severity of that tragedy is a function of where they were forced to move to. Was it somewhere on the Salt Lake City end of the continuum? Or was it a place like Fayetteville? The best answer we have is from the work of the sociologist Corina Graif, who tracked down the new addresses of seven hundred women displaced by Katrina—most of them lower-income and black. By virtually every measure, their new neighborhoods were better than the ones they had left behind in New Orleans. Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to “concentrated disadvantage”—an index that factors in several measures of poverty—fell by half a standard deviation.

The women weren’t going to Fayetteville but, rather, to places like Houston. “For low-income people in the South, Houston is a pretty darn great place,” Hendren said. “It’s not a beacon of phenomenal upward mobility like Salt Lake City. But it’s kind of the Salt Lake City of the South.” The odds of going from the bottom to the top in Houston are 9.3 per cent, which puts it fifteenth out of the top fifty U.S. metro areas.

“I think that what’s happening is that a whole new world is opening up to them,” Graif said. “If these people hadn’t moved out of the metro area, they would have done the regular move—cycling from one disadvantaged area to another. The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape.”

That is, more neighborhoods in better shape than those of New Orleans, which is a crucial fact. For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, “they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,” all of which amounted to “a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.”

Nearly ten years later, tracking the outcomes to this “natural experiment” is providing plenty of material for social scientists. Few major cities experience such catastrophes so there aren’t even many comparisons that can be made. Yet, Katrina helped spark interest in studying resilient cities as leaders and citizens think about ways that cities can bounce back from a broad range of major issues.

The growing field of the “sociology of disasters”

Inside Higher Ed features a growing subfield of sociology: the sociology of disasters.

When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, a small group of unusual first responders is at the ready: sociologists.

In the past two decades, the ranks of researchers who study disasters, natural and otherwise, have seen their numbers swell. In the wake of a tornado or a hurricane — or an oil spill or terrorist attack — these sociologists examine how traditional areas of inquiry, such as issues related to race, gender or social class, unfold in extreme situations.

“They are a really unique opportunity to understand our social world,” said Alice Fothergill, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, of disasters, which she described as a more extreme version of everyday life. “Whatever the behavior is, it’s more exaggerated or sped up in time. There are all these ways in which people are finding that it’s this valuable setting, where people are finding that they have insights that they might not have during non-disaster times.”

Interest among sociologists in researching disasters and their aftermath increased after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. But it spiked even more after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and especially Hurricane Katrina, which is widely credited with drawing more attention to the racial and socioeconomic aspects of a disaster’s impact. Many argued that the black citizens of New Orleans have had a more difficult time getting support — and that the city that is emerging is less hospitable to them.

The article suggests this is a relatively recent development; why is this the case? Disasters, natural or manmade, are not restricted to the past few decades. Could it be tied to globalization which means that we all receive news and images quickly whenever any disaster happens pretty much anywhere in the world? Disasters do tend to make good (read: entertaining/engrossing) news and now they seem to have wider emotional impact. Could it be tied to the growing number of resources that are spent each year by governments and other organizations in response to disasters? Perhaps more than ever more, the “correct” response now matters in terms of public opinion and using resources wisely.

The efforts of the National Guard after Hurricane Katrina

This is an article written in 2006 but it’s a reminder of what happened behind-the-scenes in the aftermath of Katrina. Lou Dolinar focuses on the efforts of the National Guard who for several days was focused on search and rescue efforts. While these efforts were not glamorous (rationing of food and water by the National Guard at the Superdome, a lack of bathrooms), they were effective: the number of deaths was much lower than the anticipated figure of 10,000.

Dolinar summarizes the story:

FEMA failed miserably. Yet the Coast Guard, a branch of the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security, operated precisely according to plan and saved up to 30,000 lives amid near total destruction. The National Guard Bureau helped run the show. The State Guard and regular military, which owes its extraordinary professionalism to the administration’s insistence on training and equipage for service in Iraq, saved tens of thousands more.

Well worth reading in full.

h/t Instapundit

Plainfield: From deadly tornado to suburban growth

Plainfield, Illinois has experienced much suburban growth in the last twenty years: it had 4,500 people in 1990 and it was estimated in 2007 to have more than 37,000 (with projections of 120,000 people in 2030).

But at the beginning of this growth spurt, a deadly F5 tornado ripped through the community on August 28, 1990:

The tornado touched down outside Oswego about 3:15 p.m., and the 200 mph winds inside it etched a scar 16 miles long, stretching to the southwest side of Joliet.

By 3:45, the sky was clear and the horizon lined with battered, leafless trees and ruined homes. In all, 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 300 people were injured and 29 were dead, victims of the most powerful tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.

As the community prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tornado, this article provides some insights into the collective memory of the community. The memory of their darkest moment faded away as new people moved in, 1,000 new residents in the first year after the tornado. Today, Plainfield is something different than it was then.

Sociological studies of the effects of disasters or crises tend to focus on big cities. I recently heard a presentation about a new book comparing the 9/11 crisis in New York City and the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans. I wonder if the insights of that book would be able to speak to the experience of people in places like Plainfield.

NPR on New Orleans: Still a long way to go

In a story that has slowly faded away, NPR looks again at New Orleans. The verdict: “the city’s health is much improved” but there is still much to be done. Top on the list of things to do: encourage economic growth that will continue to draw new residents and redevelopment.