91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

One break-in and $50k later, Write-A-House to unveil finalists

Andrew Kopietz

The Write-A-House project started out with a big, romantic plan: buy abandoned homes in Detroit. 

Fix them up. 

Then give them away to promising writers who commit to live in them for at least two years.

But one break-in and $50,000 in bills later, the reality of rehabbing a house in Detroit is becoming clear. 

Nobody thought this would be glamorous , OK?

Nothing says reality check like sifting through dog poop and syringes and the rooms full of trash that can come with buying an abandoned home in Detroit.

"There were kids toys and boxes of syringes, just together, mixed in. And you know it was apparent that a dog used to live there and there was dog [poop] in the back of the house," says Sarah Cox, one of the co-founders of Write-A-House. 

This house, to be specific, is a little two-story home in Detroit that's being completely gutted and rebuilt.

Cox is a writer who lived in New York before moving here, and she and fellow writer Toby Barlow were frustrated by how their New York writer friends just brushed off Detroit's literary scene.

"He was talking to publicists and he was saying like, 'well, why doesn't this author do a reading in Detroit?' And publicists were just like not booking authors to read in Detroit. At all. Like this wasn't a stop, people weren't coming here, it wasn't considered important," she says. 

Cox has a background in real estate, and they both knew how much the media loves stories about artsy Detroit – so why not kill two birds with one stone? Why not buy some foreclosed houses, fix them up, and give them away to the best writer who applies?

They were right about one thing: Reporters around the world ate it up with a spoon.

And maybe the hype got a little overblown ...

"When people first started writing about Write-A-House, they were like, 'Oh that's great, someone found a solution for the vacant property,'" says Cox. "And I was like, oh my god, we have three houses!"

The first house, the one they're fixing up now, is right on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck. 

It's on a small, dead-end street with some ramshackle houses – livable, though, Cox points out.

"I mean, this is not a home and garden street, OK?"

Things are pretty quiet on this block, except for Write-A-House, which has three or four guys coming in and out all day. 

They're with the Young Detroit Builders, a group that trains young men who've dropped out of school to work in construction. 

Men like Torey Wallace. He's working on drywall on the first floor.  

"I actually just came out of the streets not too long ago, in crime, and you know, getting in trouble. And I just had enough and changed my life and I'm working. Completely 360 turnaround," he says, smiling. 

So far this whole process, from the contractors to replacing a stolen door, the project has cost about $50,000.

All for a house that was just $1,000 dollars to buy.

Choosing the winning writer: "We need a star"

Now, they're in the process of choosing a writer to live here. Two years from now, if all goes well, Cox will give that writer the deed to this house. 

Some 358 writers have applied. Soon, they'll have a list of 10 finalists.

And the only way this will all work is if they find a respectable writer who isn't too caught up in the romance of all this, who can really engage in the neighborhood.

Cox is mostly joking when she says Write-A-House is like American Idol in season 1: If they can find a Kelly Clarkson, they just might pull this off.

"And someone who's not going to be like, 'oh, I lived in [the] house for a year and got bored with writing.' We need a star," she says. 

Cox hopes to have the winner, whoever they may be, living in the house this September.

Support for arts and cultural programming on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.