If you’re a struggling but talented writer, a new nonprofit in Detroit might want to give you a house. Yes, for free. With the help of a local youth training program, Write a House plans to fix up vacant, rundown homes in a city with many of them. It will soon be choosing writers to live in them.
The project started when two friends, a novelist and an editor who'd moved from New York to Detroit, wanted to help foster the local literary scene. They talked about buying a big house and turning it into a writers' colony, but Toby Barlow, the novelist, vetoed that idea—he’d spent time growing up at an arts colony in the Adirondacks, and knew what it entailed.
"You end up being kind of a camp counselor, and sex therapist, and running a bed and breakfast," Barlow says. Instead, they decided to buy houses to give them away, bringing more long-term literary residents to Detroit.
Write a House bought two houses for $1,000 each, and was given a third by Powerhouse Productions, a nonprofit that has fixed up other vacant Detroit homes for artists. They partnered with Young Detroit Builders, an organization that trains youth in basic building skills, to do the renovations. Now, they’re raising money on Indiegogo to work on the first house.
It took two years to launch the project, mostly because lawyers didn’t know what to make of it at first. "Lawyers, it turns out, are kind of allergic to the idea of giving away homes," Barlow says. Finally, they figured out an acceptable plan: Writers accepted into the program will lease the homes from the nonprofit for two years—for a small amount to cover taxes and insurance—and at the end of the time, they’ll be awarded the deed.
The first three houses are within a couple blocks of each other in a neighborhood sometimes called Little Bangladeshi Town. "We chose it because it was where the affordable homes were, but also because there was a strong arts community already there," Barlow says. Galleries are nearby, and Kate Daughdrill, an artist known for founding a series of creative fundraising dinners called Detroit Soup, lives down the street.
Like other parts of Detroit, the neighborhood has struggled with a glut of vacant properties. Empty homes were worth so little to banks that they often didn’t even spend the time to file foreclosure paperwork so they could be resold, and neighbors suffered from declining property values in an endless cycle.
"Creative banking shenanigans really led to the greater destruction of entire neighborhoods," Barlow says. "We can’t really counterbalance that with this project, I think that was simply too huge, but we can begin creating models where people are in creative ways, block by block, trying to take over neighborhoods."
Each year, Write a House hopes to buy three or four more houses to give away—enough for only a fraction of the people who want to come. Since announcing the project last month, Barlow says that the response has been huge. Writers, it turns out, want to live in Detroit, and Detroit wants to welcome them.
"I think these little projects radiate outward with big messages: Creativity is important, creativity needs real support, and Detroit is a place which despite its challenges embraces and wants to support the literary arts," he says.
In time, Barlow hopes that the model will inspire others to do similar things. "If you want to attract teachers, you could say, come teach at our schools for two years, we’ll give you a house," he says. "That could be a really interesting way to begin restoring neighborhoods."