I first learned about Sarah Cox and the work that she and her associates do when I saw a post on LinkedIn by one of the Write A House Board members. Intrigued, I made some inquiries and was soon put in touch with Sarah via e-mail and then telephone. She’s normally in Detroit, but when we spoke she was visiting New York for a long weekend, just in time for the sudden blast of summer heat we received here on the east coast. She was engaging and bright and just lovely to speak with. (Which isn’t surprising for someone who champions literary arts, vocational education, neighborhood stabilization, and the creation of a more vibrant city.) Here’s what we talked about.
A Q& A with Sarah Cox
Name: Sarah Cox (above)
Date: May 26, 2016
Hometown: I’m from Virginia, but I’ve got family in New York, and North Carolina, all over the east coast.
Current town: Detroit, Michigan
Occupation: co-founder of Write A House
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I wish that I could come out and see your work for myself, but I can’t get away anytime soon. So, can you tell me a little bit about what it is that you do? What’s your “elevator pitch”?
We are a non-profit that renovates homes in Detroit, and awards them to writers. It started out with a traditional writers residency, and now it’s a permanent writers residency.
Where did you get this idea? Has anything like it been done elsewhere?
I don’t want to say it’s totally original…my friend and I founded it together from scratch, and we didn’t use a model from another program. Toby Barlow is my co-founder. So, it’s a writers residency that we tried to do something different with. But it’s hard to come up with an original idea on this planet! So somewhere, some time, someone might have done something like this. But I’m not aware of anything similar. It’s not something we borrowed.
What was your background before you started Write A House?
I ran a real estate blog in Detroit, and the real estate market is why I moved to Detroit. I started thinking, where could a writers residency be housed? We looked at the market, vacancy, thought about people who would really stay, not just for a year or two. My real estate experience taught me about vacancy and foreclosure.
I know that Habitat for Humanity has been criticized that it does not generally give their houses free and clear; they have certain restrictions re resale and often a right of first refusal. How does it work with Write A House?
We do have right of first refusal to buy it back. We have a two-year period with no rent (the residents do pay insurance and taxes) and the deed in our name; if they stay for two years, we deed it over. There is this two-year period to make sure that this is what the writer wants. There’s a long list of people applying for these houses. If it’s been two years, and you’re dedicated, then that is your house.
Could you see this idea working in other cities, or small towns, or other countries?
We’ve had plenty of people write in that they want this in their city. But we’re careful about the exact neighborhood, and why it would be a good location. It’s not just about cheap houses, but about living conditions, and the neighborhoods. I would like to expand our program, but it would be a careful effort with the local community and neighbors leading it. It makes the most sense in Detroit, because of the foreclosure crisis. And we are not clear of this problem here in Detroit…
Detroit has a bit of a bad reputation…what is your experience of the reality vs. the perception of the place?
What do you mean, the bankruptcy?
The bankruptcy, sure, but I think I’ve been hearing for years and years about troubles in Detroit, the housing crisis, the financial problems, the crime rate.
It’s a troubled city. One of the nice things about bringing writers here is that writers tend to be great readers, and they do research. They see something on CNN, and they look deeper. Some are reporters (of course, some are poets and fiction writers). But writers can think of alternative narratives for what is happening here.
Do you think your work so far has been successful. as far as helping to develop a more vibrant arts community?
I can say that the three houses that were vacant and now have someone living there makes a big difference to the block, the people there have a neighbor, instead of a dilapidated place. The writers have found challenges in this city, but as a creative place, they’ve been grateful and inspired, even by the challenges.
What are some things people don’t know about Detroit that they should know?
I honestly have to go back to our efforts to highlight the foreclosure crisis. The bankruptcy is settled, but things are not fine, there are so many vacant and foreclosed properties. There is no article that can represent the number and the impact. You’d need a video camera and to take a drive around! You can’t solve 40,000 foreclosed homes overnight. No matter how much money and how many talented people work on it…it will take several more years to dig out of that.
Sometimes people say, Detroit’s back, it’s on the rise. But we have so much to solve in terms of the real estate market. New things are being built, new stadiums coming in, and that’s an easy story to write, but there’s a really big problem in the background.
Why did you choose Detroit?
I was interested in real estate and a became the editor of a real estate blog, and then I bought a house…
So here you are! Are you hoping to expand your program and give away more houses faster, or do you want to keep it at its current size? Do you have plans for taking on other projects?
Definitely! We are fundraising, and we will develop as many houses as we have money for…people want these houses.
We want to do what we’re doing, and to expand to another neighborhood. Our current houses are all in the same neighborhood. We want to expand to at least one more neighborhood in Detroit.
How are you getting funded? Are you reliant on donations, or government grants, or do you have some other means of bringing in revenue?
We don’t have government grants. We do have grants from individuals and foundations. We have internal discussions about revenue generating…we are talking about it. It’s a very careful negotiation for us, and we want to do it the right way. It’s something we have begun to speak to people about.
How much interest do you get when it’s time for people to apply for a residency? Are many people interested in your program?
We had 220 people apply for the last application round. Filling the houses is not a problem.
Can you tell me a little bit about one of the residencies and how it has been working out? (If you can do that without invading anyone’s privacy!)
The names are all public. The Write A House blog shows some of their writing and people can learn about their experiences.
Liana Aghajanian moved in this February from LA, she’s an international journalist. Her writing is about all kind of things, but her essays on her blog are about Detroit and she’s looking at it with a global lens. She’s Armenian-American and is interested in immigration. So, this is a new focus for us on immigration. The neighborhood is largely Bangladeshi.
How many people do you have working at Write A House? Is it a large organization?
It’s mostly me! I have a wonderful Director of Applications and I have a wonderful VP of the Board who is also our Treasurer. No one really full time. So, 1.5 staff members. And over the years some really lovely interns, amazing people.
I can’t help thinking of Virginia Woolf here, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This, of course, is a house of her own. (Or his own!) I take it that you agree with her sentiment that a certain level of financial security brings with it the freedom to write?
I think that most of what this project is, is security. This is your house, stay as long as you want. You’re not subject to changes in the rental market. Write what you want. You are free to be here and we like your work, so make more of it, but there’s no checklist.
What has been particularly surprising to you since you’ve been doing this work?
Probably a lot of things! When you make a program up from scratch, and you don’t really have a model, it’s all a surprise. In the early days, in 2013, I was hoping someone applied for the house, it would be so embarrassing if they didn’t! But that wasn’t a problem. You try to imagine how things could go wrong. But that’s not a problem we had, or that we likely will. The writers speak to the quality of the program; and they will continue to draw more talent.
One recent surprise, we’ve awarded three houses, and we have now named the fourth house. And the writers have all been women. We didn’t plan to be a women’s organization, but that’s the way it worked out. It’s not a thing we set out to do, the applications are name- and gender-blind. Without gender identification, these women rose to the top. I didn’t expect to be answering questions about women…we just give houses to the best people. Maybe women are just better writers!
That reminds me of what has happened with orchestras. It used to be that people tried out for symphony orchestras in front of the judges, and when more men were selected, it was just assumed that men had more musical talent. Some orchestras have started doing blind auditions where the judges can hear but not see the musicians during their tryouts, and now more women are being selected. So it looks like there was some unconscious bias going on.
The judges are half male and half female…it’s just been a thing that happens. We’ve had some very talented male authors. We don’t even track gender in applications. More women applied, though, and more women are finalists. But I’m not a gender studies professor!
Have you had any bad experiences with this project so far?
There are definitely a lot of struggles. When we bought the first two houses they were screwed up and expensive! They were very dilapidated, no pipes, no HVAC, a big struggle…you buy these houses, and they’re just shells. I would love for Detroit to be at a point where things weren’t stripped, and everything didn’t need to be replaced. You’re building a new house in the shell of an old house. New everything! We feel lucky if we can save the floors.
Do you rely on volunteer labor or do you pay your contractors?
We want to participate in job creation, so we do pay our contractors. They’re not volunteers. We have had some volunteers working on landscaping, but we want to pay our laborers. We have an apprentice on site, which also can help create jobs.
If you could wave your magic wand and make some changes in the city of Detroit…what would you do?
Not even related to Write A House, I’d love a better public transit system. Install a subway system!
On to another more personal topic, do you have a book recommendation for us? What should everyone read?
Oooh! Well, no one book explains the history of Detroit. Frances Stroh’s Beer Money, though, is about Detroit, a personal view of a type of bankruptcy and the decline of the city, written by someone who lived in the suburbs.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
I would have installed a subway system in Detroit before they built this city!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
When I was starting this real estate blog, there was a certain model and a lot of other blogs, in DC, Boston, New York, LA, I was looking at them, and deciding how to model after them. I had a friend in Detroit who said to do your own thing, don’t worry about that. People don’t have many expectations, so do what you can with it, don’t connect to the narrative of other cities. Detroit is a place that needed its own voice, a local context, and not to worry about what other people were thinking and doing.
Our project is very much a local project. The context is this city and not another city.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I don’t know…I can’t think of anything interesting! Sorry I don’t have more of a reveal for you!
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
That changes! I keep up with the gossip blogs…right now…I was talking to someone last night about Beyonce. She likes her, but just since Lemonade came out. In terms of recent work that came out, I’d say she’s been doing something very interesting.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes, our organization, we need donations! You can donate here. We’re all about raising donations. It feels really good to give someone a house! It seems like such an astronomical thing to afford. But $15 makes a huge difference. A lot of small donations have really helped. Telling your friends. The cost of a house is too much to handle for one person, but this is a career-changing opportunity for people.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Portrait courtesy of Sarah Cox; Pictures of Write A House 3 courtesy of Michelle and Chris Gerard.
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor