Rebuilding Detroit, One House at a Time, to Create Homes for Writers

From the New York Times:

The message implicit in the prizewinning documentaries “Detropia and “Searching for Sugar Man,” in Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013 — in even a casual drive along Gratiot Avenue, past mile after mile of burned-out or boarded-up houses and stores — is that Detroit is in a pitiable state.

Yet when Toby Barlow reflects on Detroit, his adopted hometown, what he describes is potential, not pity — cheap real estate being the major reason.

“It’s fun to be here and be a part of those things that are re-emerging,” says Mr. Barlow, creative director at the advertising agency Team Detroit. “There are just a wealth of things that don’t exist in Detroit — and should.”

To create those things in the Motor City, Mr. Barlow, 48, who moved from New York to work on a Ford Motor account and stayed, has become an entrepreneur. He has opened a design store in Midtown, founded a nonprofit at Eastern Market that trains people in letterpress printing, and plans to open a restaurant in Corktown soon.

He has even found time to publish two novels since moving to Detroit from Brooklyn seven years ago. But his newest, headline-grabbing venture — with Sarah Cox, his partner in the project and another Brooklyn transplant — is one that aims to revitalize the city’s art community and potentially be a model for post-blight Detroit.

The project is called Write A House, and it is giving free houses to writers.

Starting in April, a prestigious panel of writers and poets will review applications from literary authors, poets and journalists; winners will receive free houses.

They need to live in the renovated structures two years, pay modest fees ($500 monthly) for insurance and taxes, make low-cost interior improvements and participate in Write A House’s blog and literary readings.

They must also be of modest income. “If you were making a good living as a writer, you probably weren’t going to want to move to Detroit,” Mr. Barlow jokes.

The first three houses, in ramshackle but salvageable shape, have already been acquired. They are clustered in the neighborhood north of Hamtramck called Banglatown, for its large Bangladeshi community. One house was donated; two were purchased for $1,000 each.

Over 12 weeks, starting in April, these three classic Detroit bungalows will undergo overhauls by construction trainees from the nonprofit Young Detroit Builders, supervised by a professional contractor. Each renovation will cost $35,000 to $70,000.

The first $30,500 for the renovation work was raised in December via the crowdfunding site Indiegogo; a second appeal is online at and a matching grant is expected.

While Write A House pursues tax status as a charitable organization to seek foundation grants for what Mr. Barlow calls a “realistic” goal of three or four houses a year, the Indiegogo effort has already spread the word. Hundreds of writers have contacted the group.

“We were very thrown, in a good way, by the positive responses,” Mr. Barlow says. He says some have come from South America, Northern Europe and India, “not to mention across town and in the suburbs, and places like New York, Pittsburgh and Texas.”

Mr. Barlow’s partner, Ms. Cox, 31, is a journalist and another Detroit booster. She works for the real estate website and relocated from New York three years ago because “I found the cost of living there a little prohibitive.”

She, too, cites Detroit’s low-cost real estate and improving safety. “There’s more going on than just burned buildings and foreclosure,” Ms. Cox says. “It is a good and interesting place to start a business, and I have friends who have come from Brooklyn or Toronto or other places to start a business in Detroit.”

Those friends may benefit from Wayne County’s annual auction of 20,000 homes and the current $12- to $16-per-square-foot price for retail properties. Prices range widely for the city’s residential properties, up to $150 a square foot. (Business Insider recently compared the space $1 million will buy you: 2,358 square feet in New York, 83,333 in Detroit.)

Also helpful will be the results, expected after March 31, of the $1.5 million Motor City Mapping survey. Popularly known as the “blight survey,” it is taking stock of the city’s 380,000 parcels, including an estimated 80,000 abandoned or vacant buildings, and will help determine which structures should be spared demolition.

Glenda D. Price, the survey project’s co-chairwoman, has said citywide demolition should take three years. But there are questions: Will Detroit have sufficient funds to complete it? And what happens next? Should huge swaths of inner city Detroit be turned over to developers, a prospect that some contend did not work well, for instance, in the South Bronx?

Finally, could a preservation model be found in a modest project like Write A House and other small Detroit preservation projects? Among these are Power House Productions, an artist-run nonprofit that tries to stabilize neighborhoods by marketing vacant properties to create public art installations; and the Heidelberg Project, whose founder, Tyree Guyton, an artist, creates outdoor art environments to promote the notion of community
on the city’s beleaguered East Side.

Emilie Evans, a preservation specialist with the National Trust for Historic Preservation who is on loan to the mapping survey, emphasizes that “not everything ‘historic’ is built by a famous person in an architecturally significant style.”

“We’re talking about very humble, everyday houses that are keeping our neighborhoods and our blocks intact,” says Ms. Evans, whose team surveyed 18,000 historically “eligible” properties in Detroit.

“What Write A House and Powerhouse Productions and other nonprofits” are doing, she says, “just fundamental rehabilitation on these properties, is phenomenal; they are keeping blocks intact.”

Francis Grunow, a former urban planner in New York who has become a Detroit-based public policy consultant and Write A House board member, agrees. Building a literary arts community through the reclamation of vacant properties is, he acknowledges, a strikingly different approach to saving neighborhoods, but he views reclamation as positive.

Could Write A House be replicated? “It remains to be seen,” Mr. Grunow admits. “But it’s definitely something people should follow, and if it’s successful, it could really be an interesting model for many places. The story is out there, and compelling.”

For now, the story, from the viewpoints of Mr. Barlow and Ms. Cox, is the crush of applications expected to arrive next month, in tandem with the bungalows’ renovation. Write A House’s goal is to make those structures 85 percent habitable, with writers living in them just three to four months hence.

“We will be awarding each home simultaneously to the work we’ve done,” Mr. Barlow says firmly, “because we don’t want these homes to sit empty again.”