Free houses for writers: Inside the Write a House project

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There’s no such thing as a free lunch -- but for select writers, there will be such a thing as a free house.

Write a House, a new nonprofit based in Detroit, is hoping to expand the city’s burgeoning creative community by offering free houses to writers. The plan is to make residents of writers in residence.

The United States is dotted with artist residencies that work according to a traditional model: artists and writers apply and are admitted for a short stay to focus on their work. After a few weeks, they leave and a new flock arrives, a revolving door of gifted people passing through.


Write a House turns this idea inside out: Recruit artists who want to stay. Make them an offer -- a free house! -- they can’t refuse.

“I actually grew up at a writer’s colony, Blue Mountain Center, smack dab in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains,” Write a House founder Toby Barlow told The Times. “My mother began it as the founding director when I was about 14. It had a profound effect on me -- I met amazing people and saw what a strong, positive community artists can build together.”

To help create it more long-lived community, Write a House is offering three properties in proximity to one another in a neighborhood north of Hamtramck in Detroit. The population is a mix of Bangladeshis and African Americans, with artists like the well-known Powerhouse Project nearby, in an area that is suffering from the high vacancy rates afflicting much of the city.

“One of our concerns going in was that maybe there weren’t any writers who would be interested in this. After all, Detroit gets more than its fair share of bad press,” Barlow admits. However, 24 hours after launch, more than 200 interested writers asked to learn more.

The Write A House homes were run-down, with boarded-up windows, holes in the walls, crumbling ceilings and some extraordinarily funky kitchen wallpaper. All that is being transformed by volunteers and Young Detroit Builders, a nonprofit that provides training to at-risk youth.

“The city could use a little more energy around its writing arts,” Barlow explains. He notes that Detroit has a deep musical history and that visual artists have been flooding in, but says literature has lagged behind. “We’re hopeful this project will add some centripetal force, pulling more of the literary scene downtown and creating a more cohesive writing community,” he says.


Barlow, who cites Elmore Leonard as one of the city’s literary icons, is an advertising executive who lived in New York and San Francisco before deciding to make Detroit home. In addition to his work as creative director at Team Detroit, an ad agency that counts Ford among its clients, he’s a writer, the author of the novels “Sharp Teeth” and “Babayaga.”

Writers who are selected by Write a House should be ready to move to Detroit too. They’ll get a house that’s about 1,000 square feet with a couple of bedrooms. The big stuff -- roof, plumbing -- will be fixed. A writer should be ready to paint and help put other finishing touches together.

They’ll have plenty of time to do that. Writers who are selected will promise to stay for two years, and then they’ll be handed the deed to the house. In the meantime, they’ll be introduced to the local literary community, asked to contribute to a literary journal and participate in the occasional reading. They’ll also be responsible for covering insurance and taxes -- which organizers estimate will average to be less than $500 a month.

And they’re expected to stick around after the two-year handoff. “We’re not looking for community activists.... But I do think we want to bring in people who want to be there,” Barlow explains. “Mostly, though, they’re there to do what they do: write.”

If everything goes as planned, the project will have a new set of houses in another neighborhood the next year and another the next.

Organizers are asking for contributions to make it all happen. Of the three houses -- the Apple, the Blossom and the Peach -- an online fundraising campaign for the Peach is furthest along in its effort to raise $25,000.


Journalists, novelists, poets and hard-to-classify writers are welcome to apply.


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