A unique writers-in-residence program is taking shape in Detroit. Instead of a two month visit at a typical retreat, writers who look to Detroit for inspiration have a shot at a permanent home.
The non-profit Write-A-House (WAH) project offers free houses to writers, teaches contracting skills to Detroit young people, and may help stabilize neighborhoods.
Since 1950, Detroit’s population has plummeted nearly two thirds, but the city remains an attraction for artists. Decades after Motown Records left for Los Angeles, Detroit still makes music the world wants to hear, and art the world wants to see.
According to WAH founder Sarah Cox, the Motor City has a lot to offer writers too.
“There are endless stories that could be told in Detroit and really not enough writers to tell it,” said Cox, journalist and founding editor for real estate blog Curbed Detroit.
Cox moved to Detroit from New York three years ago, and said the experience has been great for her career.
“You run around a place like New York and it’s so over-saturated and you feel like everyone’s covering the same story from the same angle, but in Detroit it felt like there was room to develop creatively your angle, your beat, your take on Detroit. It could just use a lot more storytelling in general, because it’s so fascinating and weird right now,” she said.
WAH isn’t accepting applications until April 2014, but the project has already attracted hundreds of writers from all over the world.
“So far the response has been overwhelming and very diverse,” Cox said.
More than Cheap Housing
For all types of artists, one of the major draws to Detroit is extremely affordable housing. WAH has acquired three homes in an east side neighborhood for a total of $2,000. But according to, novelist, Brooklyn transplant, and WAH founder Toby Barlow, Detroit offers writers something they can’t get anywhere else.
“It helps that it’s an affordable city, and artists need that more and more, but I think it goes beyond that,” Barlow said.
“We live in a country and a world that grows more homogeneous every day, with the same stores and the same coffee places sort of paving themselves around the world. Detroit is a place that’s been spared that, largely because of the misfortune and the economic downturn that’s been suffered, but in a way that’s led to a very unique landscape that I think a lot of writers would benefit from.”
Most of the project’s cost is in renovation, and WAH estimates that their first home will require about $50,000 in repairs. The work will be done by the Young Detroit Builders—a non profit that teaches young people carpentry and restoration skills. WAH is raising half the renovation costs through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The project will seek further funding through grants.
One of WAH’s goals is to give Detroit dedicated residents, Unlike other major cities, Detroit neighborhoods are largely made up of houses rather than apartment buildings, making them particularly vulnerable to vacancy, and arson.
In a city with more than 80,000 abandoned buildings, WAH believes a few more inhabited homes can make a big difference. The challenge is to find writers who can truly connect to Detroit.
“We’re really looking for a team player for this neighborhood. Someone who understands that it has challenges but it also has these amazing, inspiring things and will be excited to participate in this neighborhood and take care of this house and keep guard over this little area of the city,” said Cox.
If everything goes according to plan, WAH will acquire two to three houses in select neighborhoods each year.
To ensure that writers are committed for the long haul, applicants are asked to submit a statement of purpose. Residents must stay at the home for two years before they’re given the deed.
“Detroit’s a really fascinating place, and in some kind of really sweet, dystopian way has really captured the imagination of the world. It’s going to be a very special writer who’s going to be interested in being a part of that, and I’m pretty positive that they’re out there,” Barlow said.