As real estate prices soar in traditional artistic and cultural hubs such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, writers are looking toward smaller cities with cheaper rent. In Detroit, literary nonprofit Write a House is encouraging that trend.
Cofounded by Sarah Cox and Toby Barlow in 2012, Write a House provides paid vocational training to unemployed Detroit natives by working with them to renovate empty, dilapidated homes in Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood. Once repaired, the homes are awarded to writers who submit applications and are selected by a panel of judges made up of accomplished poets and writers of fiction and nonfiction, including Billy Collins, John Freeman, and Major Jackson. “It’s like a writer-in-residence program,” the organization’s site proclaims, “only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.”
The idea came to Cox and Barlow while they were talking about Cox’s background running a real estate blog in Detroit and Barlow’s mother’s experience operating the Blue Mountain Center, a writer’s residency in New York state. The duo decided that to really improve the city, it made more sense to have their organization—which is funded predominantly by local grants and individual donors—award homes on an ongoing basis rather than hosting writers temporarily.
During the first two years in residence, each writer signs a lease for the house but pays no rent. After two years, if the writer wishes to remain in Detroit, Write a House signs the deed over. The writer is only responsible for homeowner’s insurance and property taxes.
“It creates a better sense of permanence in the neighborhood,” Cox said. “The writers are all in one neighborhood together. It’s been great.” Now that the vacancy rate is down in Banglatown, Cox said the organization has begun to look into other areas for future projects.
So far, Write a House has awarded homes to four writers: Liana Aghajanian, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Casey Rocheteau, and Detroit native Nandi Comer. Three houses have been fully renovated, and the fourth has been purchased. “We’re constantly refurbishing houses as soon as we can get our hands on them,” Cox said.
Three of the four winners—all but Comer—have moved into their homes, and the response has been glowing. “The zip code is, I think, the most diverse zip code in the state of Michigan,” Aghajanian said. “I was a freelance journalist; I was traveling, and I never really had a community. Being here has given me the time to sink myself into the stuff that was in the back of my head for a really long time.”
Moore—a graphic journalist and author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking (Microcosm)—said she really lucked out. “I’m in love with my neighborhood so thoroughly that everything else becomes easy,” she said. “And my house is adorable. It’s drop-dead gorgeous! My bathroom is so cool that when I look in the catalogues for what other people’s fancy bathrooms look like, I get sad that they can’t have bathrooms that look as cool as mine.”
Moore’s house was abandoned for a decade, so she’s spent a good amount of time in her yard, cutting down dead trees, removing stumps, and digging up refuse, including entire panes of glass, housings of previous floors, and bullets. But when she’s not working on her home, she’s out in the community, connecting with others over her craft. She and her neighbors are planning a collaborative comics project. “We’re just going to hang out in the library making comics together,” she said. “And that’s literature.”
Though Cox doesn’t believe the writers “have a personal responsibility to transform Detroit,” she does think “they’ve been able to raise the profile of Detroit in terms of the literary arts.” As for the future of Write a House, Cox suggested that it would remain firmly in Motor City. Detroit is her and Barlow’s hometown, so for them, a huge part of the motivation behind the program is their civic pride. “Other cities have asked,” she said. “I have no serious plans to branch out in another city.”
Aghajanian, for her part, thinks the focus on Detroit is sensible. “I know that when I mentioned it to some people, they’ve said, ‘That’s so great! Why can’t this happen elsewhere?’ ” she said. “At the same time, I don’t think there’s any city that could benefit more from this than Detroit—in the U.S., anyway.”