In Abandoned Detroit, Group Tries to Lure Writers with Free Rent

A grassroots organization plans to give away abandoned houses to writers who agree to move to the bankrupt city and boost its arts community and economy. So far, it's not costing the city a dime.

Not long after she moved to Detroit, Sarah Cox was chatting with fellow Detroit resident and writer Toby Barlow about existing artist residency programs in the city and the two wondered: these programs were all short term. If Detroit needed new residents to survive, why not start a permanent residency program?

From that conversation came the idea for Write-a-House, a grassroots organization headed up by Cox and Barlow that plans to give away abandoned houses to writers who will bring their craft (and income and spending) to Detroit. The deal is this: Write-a-House, with the help of Detroit Young Builders, will fix up an abandoned home and restore plumbing, install appliances and the like. The author-in-residence will be responsible for finishing the job (i.e., painting, carpeting, etc.) during the two-year residence. (The author lives in the house rent-free during the residency although he or she is responsible for insurance costs and property taxes.)

During the residency, the author will contribute regularly to the Write-a-House blog as well as participate in local readings, other cultural events and generally be an engaged citizen. After the two years is up (and assuming the terms of the residency agreement have been met) the writer will receive the deed to the house, free and clear.

It’s a pretty enticing deal – so it’s not surprising when Cox says Write-a-House initially received about 250 inquiries after the organization’s website launched last year. The group is applying for nonprofit status and plans to begin accepting applications from writers this spring. So far the organization has three houses it is working on located in a former autoworkers neighborhood north of Hamtramck (a town entirely within Detroit). The idea is to give a boost to the city’s reinvented arts community. What Detroit – and its abandoned neighborhoods – need first, Cox reckons, are people. The economic growth will follow.

“We’re equally interested in neighborhood stabilization and revitalization as we are in supporting and bringing in new talent,” she says.

Other cities have attempted similar homesteading projects with fairly successful results. (Although in Detroit’s case, the city isn’t paying a dime (so far) to lure new people as Write-a-House hopes to rely solely on grants and other fundraising to achieve its goal.) Beginning in 1973, Baltimore ran a fairly unique homesteading program in which it sold blocks of abandoned Federal-style row houses in downtown neighborhoods for $1 each. The city provided buyers with up to $37,000 in low-interest construction loans, provided technical assistance and authorized payments to approved contractors. Major work had to be completed within six months and, after 18 months in residency, homesteaders received the deeds to the houses.

Whether that program was worth the city’s time effort depends on the perspective. For example, a 1986 Baltimore Sun
article notes that the program only brought back 600 houses back to life during its 10-year lifespan while 40,000 families remained on a nine-year waiting list for Baltimore's 20,000 units of public housing. But, the article also points out, numbers don’t measure how the homesteading program helped rekindle the city’s fire. For one, such programs generally help expand a tax base one household at a time.

“It’s hard to collect taxes on an abandoned house,” says Daraius Irani, executive director of Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute located just north of Baltimore. “So if you bring in at least one person in, you’ve succeeded.”

Baltimore’s $1 row house program gave way to other forms of homesteading in the city and Baltimore's revival led to the development of a rebuilt downtown waterfront and a stable real estate market that has eliminated the need for such generous giveaways.

But Baltimore’s example differs from Detroit in the type of homesteader its program attracted. In Charm City, homeowners needed to be able to qualify for and pay back a loan big enough to expense the entire renovation of a house. And they needed to finish the renovation in 18 months, meaning the new homeowners would quickly be pumping dollars into the city economy. In short, the program was designed to draw middle-class households back to Baltimore.

In Detroit, more of the upfront work is done by Write-a-House. Although future homeowners are still responsible for some expenses, the personal income of its homesteaders are more likely to vary.

“You could just work on your novel all day long and be more devoted to your craft instead of that daily hustle to make rent,” says Cox.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, especially if the program can survive on grants and won’t ask for city aid. Irani notes that one of Detroit’s core problems is a demand and supply mismatch as the overly spread-out city has vast swaths of abandoned homes. “They’re trying to correct that,” he says.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.