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An Unorthodox Writing Gift For Detroit

Two years ago, writers Toby Barlow and Sarah Cox got together to discuss Detroit. 

Negative headlines pounded the city’s reputation, but the duo knew there was more to Detroit than foreclosures and shuttered factories. Barlow proposed creating a writer’s residency within the city, but Detroit didn’t need temporary residents—it needed permanent ones. A September estimate put the number of vacant homes at 78,000, or one-fifth of the housing stock. 

“We wanted more intelligent, interesting writing about Detroit,” Cox said. “So we looked at how we could make that happen.”  

A group of Detroit writers and activists formed the organization Write A House. The mission was to rehab some of the city’s vacant homes and give them away, for free, to writers.

The board members pooled their money to buy two homes. A third home was donated to the group. They formed a mutually beneficial partnership with Detroit Young Builders, a vocational training program for city youth. The construction team would provide the labor to rehab the homes. Write A House launched its IndieGogo campaign this week to raise $25,000 to finance the renovation

Applications for the residences will be available in spring 2014, hoping to select writers who are committed to Detroit for the long haul. “We want people to know what they’re getting into,” Cox said. “You’re living in Detroit and you need to be comfortable with that.” 

The judges include former National Poet Laureate Billy Collins, poet Major Jackson, and writer and activist Dream Hampton. Writers don’t need to be Detroiters to apply. The winners will live in the house rent-free for the first two years and will be responsible for paying insurance and property taxes. After that, the writer will receive the deed to the house, free and clear. 

Write A House also stipulates that the winners participate in Detroit’s literacy scene, but will let those individual decide how. “They could host a reading series or tutor kids,” Cox explained. “We’ll leave it up to them. We want someone who feels like they’re part of the community.” 

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