One of the upsides of a city going broke is that it leaves plenty of scope for communities with similarly empty pockets – like artists – to try things on the cheap. That and very affordable real estate. Detroit residents Sarah Cox and Toby Barlow are making the most of both outcomes of the Motor City’s bankruptcy by highlighting and supporting the creative community that’s survived it through Write a House, a unique residency programme that renovates dilapidated houses and gifts them to writers. Yep, gifts them.
Sarah Cox talks to Sarah Illingworth about the project.
Where did the idea for Write a House come from?
Toby and I were initially talking about a traditional writer’s residency where someone comes to stay in a city for 2-3 months to work on a project. Then we got to talking about how many vacant houses Detroit had, and the need for creative people to fill them, and it made more sense to find people that would not just visit. So we came up with this crazy plan to give away houses to get people to stay forever and 350 people applied for the first one. It has been overwhelming.
How does the program work?
We renovate vacant, dilapidated houses with money raised through grants and donations. [Our] application process [is] open to any US citizen that is judged by professional writers in the fields of fiction, non fiction and poetry. We gave away one house in our first year, but plan to give away three next year.
Why is it important to you to support the literary arts, and the Detroit community more generally?
Visual arts seem to get a ton of attention here so we wanted to do the same thing for literary artists. Detroit is a challenging city, but one where there are lots of opportunities for creative, independent people. We want to use our program to support existing residents as well as drawing new ones. The application process is open to writers that already live in Detroit as well.
You just handed over the keys to your first winner – can you say a little about them?
Yes. You can read more about Casey here.
How do you find the houses, and how does the actual renovation of the homes play out?
We bought the first two in a foreclosure auction but we are planning to work with the Land Bank for the next ones. A local, Detroit-based contractor manages the process and we employ a team of students in the Young Detroit Builders program to help.
Do you have plans to open the residency to international writers?
Immigration issues are complicated and a little beyond our scope right now. It is possible but we’ll likely need a legal expert willing to donate some time to helping us figure it out.
How long have you lived in Detroit? What are some of the changes you’ve seen the city go through?
Four years. There’s still incredibly high foreclosure, but the real estate market is rebounding in neighborhoods. We’ve had a new mayor that started in January that I am very optimistic about. He’s put a lot more resources into the Land Bank to help turn over vacant property to people that will pay taxes and renovate.
What is the artist community like there now?
It is really thriving. I feel like I discover a new gallery space every week.
If I had just a few days in Detroit how would you recommend I spend them?
You really need a driving tour of multiple neighborhoods to get a sense of how large and spread out this city is. It contains a lot of vacant areas, but also vibrant areas. The diversity but also the way things change block to block is fascinating. You should also probably support the DIA and stop in.
Sarah F. Cox is the founding editor of the real estate blog Curbed Detroit. She is the co-Founder of Write A House and a freelance writer. She has been renovating a dilapidated house in Detroit for two years and hopes to live in it very soon.