As the largest city in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy and home of the infamous Eight Mile Road, Detroit might not be the first place that comes to mind if you’re a writer looking for community. But in the wake of a decades-long exodus of more than a million residents, a number of writers, artists, and entrepreneurs have created galleries, work and performance spaces, and even urban farms in the city’s abandoned homes and lots. And beginning this month, the Detroit-based nonprofit Write a House (www.writeahouse.com) is giving new meaning to the term “writers residency” by handing over the keys to newly renovated homes in the Motor City.
The idea to give away houses began two years ago, when Toby Barlow, an advertising executive and novelist, and Sarah F. Cox—then the founding editor of Curbed Detroit, a prominent real-estate blog—were talking about how to bring more writers to the city. “It’s been a tough town for literary artists,” Barlow says. “We don’t have a large liberal-arts school, our newspapers have been suffering, and we don’t have a strong literary community. We wanted to create a gravitational center for literary arts in Detroit.”
Cox suggested rehabbing an abandoned mansion and launching a traditional writers residency, but Barlow, whose mother was the founding director of the Blue Mountain Center, a colony for writers and artists in the Adirondacks, balked at the idea. “I knew I didn’t want to run an artists colony,” he explains. “You’re kind of a camp counselor and a cook and a maid and a psychotherapist.”
Eventually they came up with the idea, Barlow says, to “build a model like an artists colony, unique to the conditions that define Detroit these days: a lot of available real estate.”
It was a bold idea, but not without precedent: Power House Productions, an organization working to repopulate and revitalize Detroit, was already renovating abandoned homes into gathering and performance spaces for artists, and another nonprofit called Ponyride revamped a warehouse to create affordable work spaces for socially conscious entrepreneurs and artists.
“It made sense to give houses to people who would pay taxes and care for them,” Cox says. “One of Detroit’s major problems is not having enough residents. We wanted to get people to commit to staying.”
It took a year and a half to secure 501(c)(3) status. “The lawyers were allergic to the idea of giving away homes,” Barlow explains. “They said, ‘What if the home gains value and the writer sells it and makes a big profit?’ Well, then I guess we’re supporting the arts! There’s nothing less profitable than giving away a home. That alone should define us as a nonprofit.”
Write a House gives homes to writers of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as journalists, playwrights, and screenwriters—but not, for now, songwriters and composers. Applicants must be citizens of the United States (including current Detroit residents), previously published, and earning a maximum income of $39,750 per person, more for larger families. They do not need to be full-time writers.
In its inaugural year, the team will give away one house. Recipients are chosen through a separate competition for each house. The first round of judges included poets Billy Collins and Major Jackson; scholar Michael Stone Richards; writer, director, and activist Dream Hampton; journalist Tamara Warren; and Sean McDonald, the executive editor of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and publisher of FSG Originals; as well as Barlow and Cox. They received 348 applications: 155 in fiction, 99 in nonfiction, and 94 in poetry. A shortlist of ten was announced in August, and a winner will be named this month. (Check G&A: The Contest Blog at pw.org for updates.) After this year’s initial run, the team plans to give away three homes per year. The application period for the second house will be publicized on the Write a House website following the announcement of the first winner.
Barlow and Cox will encourage winners to give back to the literary community in some way, perhaps by hosting a porch reading series or by teaching English to nonnative speakers. And they’re eager to connect the winners with their own network of writers and editors. But none of that is required. “If you come in and don’t want to participate in anything, we’re not going to throw you out,” Barlow says.
The winner will be asked to pay an estimated $4,500 for the year in taxes and insurance on the home, live in it at least 75 percent of the year, and maintain the property. After two years, the resident will receive the deed. There is no penalty for selling the house after that, but Barlow and Cox ask that they get the chance to buy it back for the home’s market value.
So far the nonprofit has purchased two vacant homes on the foreclosure market for a thousand dollars each; Power House Productions donated a third house to the project. All three homes are in a diverse neighborhood that some call Banglatown for its growing Bangladeshi community.
“It has a burgeoning artist community,” Cox says of the neighborhood. “We didn’t want to drop anyone where there wouldn’t be a lot of people.”
Cox adds that applicants should understand that living in Detroit is interesting and enlivening but not always as easy as life in most other U.S. cities: “There’s a lot of vacancy and definitely some basic livability issues that other cities don’t struggle with,” she says, noting that her car was stolen last year. Barlow and Cox haven’t decided whether homes acquired for the program in the future will be in Banglatown or other Detroit neighborhoods.
To begin initial renovations, the team led a successful crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo, raising more than thirty thousand dollars from three hundred and sixty donors to rehab the first house, and plan to support future renovations using grants from arts organizations and foundations. They hired Young Detroit Builders, a nonprofit that trains eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds in construction skills, to help with repairs.
Renovating the homes has been a challenge, in large part because empty houses in the city tend to attract squatters and vandals. Round-the-clock security is needed while each home is being renovated and, immediately after it’s finished, Write a House finds someone to stay in the house until the contest winner moves in.
Giving away three houses won’t change Detroit’s fortunes, but Barlow and Cox hope that the contest will raise the city’s literary profile, attracting more low- and middle-income writers to move there. And, as Barlow notes, they’ve already succeeded in “changing the narrative” of the city: A few days after the first funding campaign launched—followed by a burst of coverage from a handful of major media outlets—he found himself in a rug shop in Istanbul. He told the shopkeeper he was from Detroit, half expecting to hear a crack about the city’s bankruptcy.
“Detroit,” she replied. “Isn’t that where they’re giving away homes to writers?”
Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the alumni magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.