Free Homes for Writers (in Detroit)

In Australia, urban renewal schemes that make it cheap and attractive for artists to inhabit communities have had some success in revitalising those communities. Marcus Westbury’s Renew Australia project partners with landlords to open up vacant spaces in community centres to artists, cultural organisations and community groups, on a cheap (temporary) basis. It all began with Renew Newcastle in 2008; in 2011, Lonely Planet named Newcastle one of the world’s top ten cities to visit.

Detroit, once America’s fourth largest city, filed the largest bankruptcy claim in American history last year, with liabilities of 9.05 billion. Since the 1950s (when its population peaked at 1.8 million), Detroit has lost 1.2 million residents. In what the New Yorker calls ‘a contemporary, literary twist on old homesteading incentives’, an organisation called Write a House is refurbishing three two-bedroom houses in Detroit – all within walking distance of each other – and offering them for free to writers to live in. If the writers stay for two years, engage with the city’s literary community and contribute to the project blog, they’ll get the deed to their house. The houses are promoted as ‘80% inhabitable’, which essentially means that writers need to paint their houses and provide their own furniture.

One of the houses under renovation.

One of the houses under renovation.

Write a House was co-founded by journalist Sarah Cox and novelist Toby Barlow, who both moved from Brooklyn to Detroit within the past decade, attracted by its cheap housing and the lifestyle that offered.

‘I had just sold my first book, and was worried to be leaving what is considered the best ecosystem for writers,’ Barlow told the New Yorker of his move, more than seven years ago. ‘But when I came to Detroit, I found that for me it was just as good, if not better … Detroit is affordable and fascinating, and that seems like a good combination for writers.’

Renovations in progress.

Renovations in progress.

The conditions? Writers need to have been published before, though the organisation is particularly interested in supporting emerging writers. It’s open to low-income writers only. Writers don’t need to be US citizens to apply – but they do need ‘some legitimate proof that US government would grant you permanent residency’.

‘People who move here will have to be prepared for some boarded-up houses on their blocks,’ says Sarah Cox. ‘But you’ll get the opportunity to be part of a community, own a house, see some real change happening.’

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