A Room of Their Own: How Write A House Is Putting Writers in Vacant Homes

The Detroit nonprofit is changing gears but staying the course

Last year we profiled Detroit nonprofit Write A House, an organization created in 2012 to renovate houses and give them away to writers. Recently, Write A House has reassessed the model of their organization moving forward to ensure greater sustainability, while keeping their mission of providing long-term affordable housing for writers so that they can pursue their art without the fear of rising costs.

“We came to realize that giving away the homes was not putting us on a path to financial stability and decided to adapt so that we can grow,” Write A House Co-Founder and Director Sarah F. Cox told me through email. “Our goal is to reduce vacancy and fill renovated homes with emerging, low-income writers, and we can’t do that at the rate of one home a year we were going at.”

Write A House recently awarded the final home under its original model to Nandi Comer, notably the first Detroit native to receive a home in the program (all previous winners — poet Casey Rocheteau, journalist Liana Aghajanian, and cultural critic Anne Elizabeth Moore — had been living in other cities). Fundraising for Nandi’s home began in May 2016, but Write A House “didn’t see donations come in at the level we wanted,” says Cox. “Around the same time, our board started to look at models of artist residencies that had been more successful than we had in growing and discussed what we could do to learn from them.”

One model that Cox mentions is Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, which offers affordable housing as well as public art projects in their neighborhood revitalization efforts. Write A House wants to be a good neighbor to long-term residents and currently owns a vacant lot near its next two houses, and they hope to acquire more lots in the future and work with other organizations to address public space.

The biggest change at Write A House for writers is that, following the completion of the first four home awards, deeds to houses will no longer be turned over to the writer in residence after two years. “After Nandi’s home is completed,” says Cox, “we’re going to focus on more multifamily properties and ways to create long-term stability for writers in terms of subsidized rent and pathways for them to purchase homes.” Future winners of the Write A House program will be given an inexpensive place to live for as long as they choose to live there, but the house will remain the property of Write A House to guarantee that it continues to serve writers and community revitalization should its first tenant decide to move on. “We’ve never had to deal with someone moving out before, but the long term reality is that one day it will happen and our second version of the project is better equipped to make sure that artist housing stays artist housing for the long-haul.”

Write A House plans to roll out a new application process for writers later in 2017, but the cycle is dependent on donors giving so that they can renovate more homes. To tie up what they began in May 2016, Write A House is still raising money to complete Nandi’s home, seeking to raise $20,000 by the end of January 2017.

You can donate to the renovation of Nandi’s home here. As with previous job sites, Write A House will hire a local Detroiter who has gone through a job training program in construction and is on a path to greater job stability. “We make sure that when we spend money on these houses that we help locals become more financially stable,” says Cox. “Detroit still needs a lot more jobs, and the faster we raise more money to expand, the more we can do about that as well.”

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