Last week, a group of Detroit writers and activists came together under the banner of Write-a-House to begin gifting a first set of three houses in the city to interested writers, as reported on here by Bill Bradley. Reached by phone while on holiday in central Turkey this week, the novelist, journalist, and ad man Toby Barlow explained how the non-profit he’s helping to lead landed upon this idea where, as their site puts it, “Write-a-House is a twist on the ‘Writer’s Residency. In this case, the writer is simply given the house, forever.”
The story goes back, said Barlow, to local writer and Curbed Detroit founding editor Sarah F. Cox, who moved to Detroit from Brooklyn in 2011. Cox had been floating the idea of buying up one of Detroit’s old mansions and starting a residence for writers and artists in it. Barlow had followed a similar path to Cox. He’d moved to Detroit from New York City about a half-decade earlier, though, in his case to serve as the creative director for Ford. But long before that, Barlow had been raised at the Blue Mountain Center, a creative community in the middle of the Adirondacks where his mother is still the co-director.
“And having grown up in an arts colony,” said Barlow, “most end up as sort of a B&B or a summer camp, with a handful of characters you have to manage. I wasn’t interested in that.”
Detroit’s house-heavy landscape, hit by a spate of foreclosures and vacancies, “gives us the opportunity to think about space differently,” says Barlow, and indeed others have. There’s a trend afoot in the city, wherein scrappy teams of non-developers are making use of unused buildings and land: The Heidelberg Project, a quirky open-air neighborhood art experience in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt section that got its start in the mid-‘80s; Ponyride, a warehouse-based crafts incubator in Corktown; and a visual arts collaboration between Power House Productions and a publication called Juxtapoz in a neighborhood just north of Hamtramck, a Detroit-enclosed town of its own that has existed as a Polish-American enclave with a more recent influx of artists. Those efforts, said Barlow, provided lessons in “using negative space and leveraging it into a positive.”
In the case of the Power House project, it also provided a house on which Write-a-House could get started. The other two homes were picked up for about a thousand dollars a piece at the Wayne County land auction. Barlow and company teamed up with Young Detroit Builders to provide vocational training and remake the houses at the same time. Construction has just begun; funds are being raised through an online Indiegogo campaign. The Write-a-House writer-in-residence will be expected to finish polishing up the house, but he group’s goal, said Barlow, is to present him or her with a house that is already “lovely and liveable.”
Calling on a writer, or even three, to remake a neighborhood, Barlow admitted, is a lot to ask, but that’s not really what’s expected of them here. Just serving as a warm body in a once-empty house is something, he said. “A writer moving in the neighborhood, and just being there, makes a difference.”
Indeed, while it’d be nice if they get engaged in the life of their neighborhood, that’d be great, but “if they want to turn on their music and type,” said Barlow, “we’re okay with that, too.” For one thing, judging whether an applicant will contribute to their geographic community is a little “unnatural,” he said. Easier, though, is judging their literary merit. Applications for Write-a-House will begin in the spring, and a panel that includes former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will make the choice. They’ll be looking for the strongest writer possible, said Barlow; applications are asked for a three-page writing sample. There’s no preference for fiction or non-fiction, local or non-local, but “we’re still sorting out the level of academia we’re open to,” he said. “It might be hard for us to judge theses.”
To get a Write-a-House house, writers have to qualify as low-income. “So we’re serving that purpose, too,” said Barlow. The group expects that most writers willing to up and move to a proffered house would fall under the income bar. That reality helps make the deal especially tempting, they think. “If you’re paying too much to live in a city like New York or Chicago,” said Cox, the Curbed Detroit editor, in a press release, “then this is the program for you.”
Unlike other sweat-equity housing programs, writers in this case eventually get the deed free and clear. There’s no mortgage to carry. Figuring out the legalities of the arrangement took some doing, said Barlow. “Lawyers, we discovered, are allergic to the idea of giving away homes.” But they worked out a plan where the writer moves in and pays taxes and insurance — a tab expected to run about $5,000 a year — for two years. At the end, he or she is given complete ownership of the house. If the writer wants to sell the house within five years, Write-a-House has to be given a chance to buy it back. “It’s sort of designed,” said Barlow, “to have as few moving parts as possible.”
‘We’re not operating at a scale like Habitat for Humanity,” said Barlow. “Nor do we want to be. We’re just looking to add some centripetal force to the literary arts community in the city.”
Video of Tony Barlow from Next City’s 10th anniversary event in New York City in November:
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.