An ambitious Write a House plot: bring artists and new housing to Detroit

The nonprofit wants to draw writers to the city while rehabbing derelict houses and reducing the number of abandoned properties.

Courtesy of Write A House
In Detroit, Write A House rehabs abanoned houses and turns them over to writers who commit to living in the city. One house is already occupied by a writer; another is being rehabbed now, and a third has been purchased.

Authors or reporters often refer to the practice of "writing around" a topic, whether it be a controversial issue or a difficult subject to approach with the written word.

But is it possible to "write around" a problem as tangible and severe as Detroit's foreclosure crisis and vacant property rate?

Sarah Cox and Toby Barlow, co-founders of the Detroit-based nonprofit group Write A House, have put that question to the test in their effort to draw more writers to live in Detroit and  simultaneously reduce the high vacancy rates in a city neighborhood.

"It came from us talking about having more writers in Detroit," says Ms. Cox, the organization's director and a writer herself. "I came to Detroit specifically to write about real estate and development."

Founded in 2012, Write A House was established by a coalition of writers and activists, based on the premise of providing vocational training to local youths who would work to renovate vacant properties.

Those homes would, in turn, be given to writers who would move to the city and who could contribute to its revitalization, not only by reducing vacancy rates and helping to stabilize neighborhoods, but also by writing about the city itself.

Thus Write A House operates with three outcomes in mind: provide vocational training for  residents and promote employment; work to revitalize neighborhoods and reduce  vacant property rolls; and support writers who can contribute to the literary and cultural life of the city.

"We really want to see this neighborhood stabilize," Cox says, noting that the area selected for the Write A House projects is not far from the center of Detroit. "I want to see a strong neighborhood with a sense of community," she says.

So far, Write A House has purchased three homes. The first was awarded in September 2014 to poet and historian Casey Rocheteau. A second is currently under renovation. Applications to become the occupant are being accepted, she says.

The houses have been purchased either at public auction or through a Detroit land bank, Cox says. Their condition is often quite poor. The properties having remained vacant for an extended period, and even a small, 900-square-foot house requires extensive rehabilitation.

"The houses get gutted, and almost completely rebuilt," she says. "They have been allowed to sit for too long."

The renovation process boosts the local economy. The organization works with a private contractor who hires and trains city residents.

One of the central responsibilities for the Write A House team – which consists of two part-time staff members, one of whom is Cox  – is identifying writers who wish to live in Detroit.

"It is about moving to Detroit and being ready to commit to moving their life there," Cox says. "You have to be ready for that. [Your] life circumstances have to align so that you are going to be excited about this, and committed to this."

Write A House wants to provide writers with a place to engage in their craft, whether in the form of poetry, fiction, or other types of writing.

"We try to allow a lot of leeway," she says.

Writers awarded a house sign a two-year lease, with Write A House covering rent and the writer responsible for property taxes. At the conclusion of the two years, should the writer decides to remain in the home, the deed is transferred into their name at no cost, Cox says.

Cox says that she hopes that over time Write A House will be able to bring about real change in this neighborhood – and someday expand to other parts of the city.

She hopes the neighborhood will be able to reduce the number of vacant houses, while attracting people from a broad variety of backgrounds.

Write A House has received grants to support its work, including one from the Knight Foundation, and it is continuing to raise funds.

• For more information about Write A House, visit

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