Giving Away Free Houses to Build Literary Community in Detroit

Write a House hasn’t given away any houses yet, but it’s already received loads of national press—from Forbes to the LA Times to the New Yorker—and raised over $18,000 toward its $25,000 fundraising campaign for restoring dilapidated houses to give away to writers. 

The Detroit-based upstart nonprofit has a new spin on a writer’s residency program: instead of a temporary writer’s residency, Write a House is seeking to make writers permanent residents of the city, literally by giving writers the deeds to their houses after they’ve lived in them for two years.

Right now, Write a House is fundraising to rehabilitate the first of three vacant homes in a diverse Hamtramck neighborhood that has already seen several artist-led renovation projects. The homes will be renovated in partnership with Young Detroit Builders, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating building trades skills in disadvantaged youth.

Shareable spoke with Detroit-based advertising executive, novelist and Write a House co-founder Toby Barlow about how this project contributes to building a sharing economy in the City of Detroit. According to Barlow, Write a House has received over 500 inquiries so far.  He says the organization is looking for low-income, published writers, noting that the final decisions will be heavily based on the quality of the writing itself.

The following interview is lightly edited for flow and clarity.

Shareable: How is Write a House about building a sharing economy in Detroit?

Barlow: I think the essence of the project is all about sharing and taking the resource back. The fact that Wayne County has property auctions where you can get a house so cheaply is essentially giving it back to the community. So, we the community are taking back these homes, and we the community are investing in the education of youth via Young Detroit Builders, and we the community are then investing in the literary community by giving the home to the writer. 

That at it’s essence is all about sharing and returning something that was private and broken to the commons, and having the commons say what their priority is and then donating that common property back to that ideal.

So I think Detroit is a fantastic opportunity for this. We are Write a House and so we are about the literary arts, but we can be a model for anything. If the community wants to take homes and give them to teachers, or municipal workers, or librarians, there’s not really any limit to what this model can be.

Shareable: So why did you choose writers to start with instead of teachers or librarians?

Barlow: I think that Detroit is a city that needs writers.  We have great writers and some great literary organizations, and it’s a city that supports the visual and musical arts, but we felt there could be more force applied to literary arts.

Shareable: What requirements is Write A House placing on its writer residents to be a part of building the sharing economy, in terms of sharing their time and talents with the community?

Barlow: We don’t have any expectations of our writers, other that they are great writers and they want to be here. We are making the assumption they want to be here to write and be here and are moving forward in the hopes that they want to live and write in Detroit and be a part of the larger literary community. 

If the writer wants to participate in readings we organize, or lead organizations and bring in other writers to foster community, that’s great. If we happen to choose JD Salinger, and he or she closes the blinds and types away, then that’s the price of having just one expectation, which is that there is a great writer out there who wants to be in Detroit. Because otherwise we run into an unfortunate situation where it becomes very subjective as to how they are fulfilling that expectation. We don’t want to be referees beyond the moment where we award the house.

The only requirement is that they live in the home, not even that they write. Maybe they are a fantastic writer who will never write again. I’m not sure that will be the case because writers write; in my case it’s been sort of an infection or a medical condition, but our expectation is that the writer will live there and after two years of living there, we will award the deed. We want someone who comes in, settles in, and decides this works for them.

We don’t want to have to become lawmen. That’s as far as we want to go—just checking in every so often and maintaining communication. I am betting, and I think it’s a good bet, that the kind of person who wants to participate in a program like this wants to be a part of the greater community and part of a literary community. I think that’s almost a safe bet.

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