Write-A-House – Detroit Writer’s Residency Program

For as often as we shout-out Detroit (a quick search of the word reveals around sixty five posts with the Motor City mentioned in some capacity) it sometimes to take effort to remember the actual state that it’s descended in to. As techno fans, it’s easy to imagine it as this magical place, to which one day we’ll hope to make a pilgrimage to. A lot of the cats we know in the city are as kind as they are militant, and hardly talk of their hometown when travelling, leaving it to the press releases and bookers.

For many years labelled the most violent city in America, the city’s history has been one of constant decline and abandonment since the decentralisation of the automotive industry. There’s no precedent or similar drawing line for the levels of population decline since the ’50s that led to it’s unemployment, crime and poverty problems, and eventually the declaration of bankruptcy earlier this year. Described as an urban ghost town, more than half of total residential lots in many large portions of the city are abandoned, contributing to at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots.

By any standards, from the outset things look grim. But as has happened before, from struggling situations creativity will breed. And in this belief, we’re aligned with the values of Write-A-House, a Detroit writer’s residency that will give you the house for free.

Part of the mission is, through the building of the homes, aiming to educate Detroit youth in carpentry and building so that the cities natives are left with new skills. Write-A-House work with Young Detroit Builders (active since 1996) who give students a modest earning allowance and 10-month intensive training course. Post-course support and even job placement afterwards is offered, with all work focussed on rebuilding their home communities.  The eleven minute video below from Logan Siegel sets the scene pretty well.

The second part of the mission is the long-term goal of building a literary community within those areas. To achieve this, the writer is given the house, for the bare minimum (low rent to cover taxes etc.) and after 24 months of residency are handed the deed to the house.

It’s an amazing project of generosity, and in a blog post back in October 2012 they outline the mentality shift that most of us need to undergo to get our heads around it.

Had an interesting conversation with the Creative Time crew who came through town from NYC last weekend. Been mulling it over ever since. There seems to be curiosity/wonder about this project from people who instinctively think it does not make economic sense. “You’re giving the homes away?” Yes. “But what if they resell it?” Well, we have the right of first refusal, but maybe we won’t buy it, then they’re free to sell it. “So, what’s your economic upside?” And that is when it’s clear that we’re talking to people who don’t really understand the situation here. Which is understandable, since Detroit is in a wholly unique situation.

In the days since that visit, I’ve been working on a theory of what I call exoeconomics, which is about what happens when something moves outside the realm where our traditional economic answers can answer it, when they go back into the wilderness outside the supply chain scenarios where capitalism thrives. It seems to me that Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods, our foreclosures and our vacancy problems, are seemingly unsolvable partly because people are attempting to use the same tools to solve it that got us into the problem in the first place. It seems there are times when you need to put those tools down (mortgages, profit, loss, loans, interest rate, etc) and use other tools. Actually, I would say we have already put the tools down, banks seem uninterested in the fate of the thousands of homes they own in the city and use the economic tool of wishful thinking to hope they come back. This relates to a larger question on the vanishing of responsible neighborhood lending institutions, etc. But what we are left with are problems where economics levers can’t gain any traction. Eventually, using creative, non-market based strategies, these exoeconomic situations can be solved, allowing them to reenter the warm clutches of capitalism. I would suggest that this is one of the goals of Write A House, to use a unique situation-specific answer to provide a model of how to address this one seemingly intractable problem. We are not the answer, but in this small example there might be clues to real solutions. (so, I’m calling my agent to pitch this as a book, because exoeconomic issues are growing. Ironically, the arts themselves are becoming exoeconomic, as the internet, digital piracy, and a flooding of content remove the economic incentives that made so many arts – music, journalism, filmmaking – thrive.)

Detroit’s in trouble, but no doubt will rise strong. Here’s an opportunity – the likes of which many of us don’t get often – to be a part of this change from the ground floor.

To find out more, donate to a brilliant cause, or apply for a residency visit their online home here: http://writeahouse.com/