Three years ago, Write A House announced that our fourth home would be awarded to Detroit poet, Nandi Comer. At the time, over the previous three years, we renovated and awarded three homes, and those awardees moved in right away.
Based on this track record, we assumed Nandi would also move into a renovated home shortly after the announcement. But that wasn’t the case, and we deeply regret any misconception we created by not being clear about the status of the fourth home we were awarding. The house was simply not renovated at the time we announced Nandi’s award. Moreover we had not raised sufficient funds to renovate the house at the time of the announcement.
The decision to announce a fourth home was championed by our then-President, who had been essential to our launch and early fundraising. His optimism and can-do attitude led us to raise over $30,000 for our first house through our launch campaign. We had launched with no money, no previous experience renovating homes, and an all-volunteer staff. That we had pulled those first three off in the first place sounds crazy. That we were awarding a home we had not yet funded was equally crazy. But we had a track record of pulling off crazy, and, at the time, we had good reason to believe that our philanthropic supporters would continue their funding, so our board got behind the vote to move forward.
During the course of the next three years, we were unable to raise the necessary funds to finish rehabilitating the home to give it to Nandi. Instead, we had to borrow money to finish the home. Then we had to sell it to pay the debt so that it would not remain vacant long term, and could be released from a lien with the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
In order to offer Nandi some amount of satisfaction and accord for an unfulfilled promise, WAH is providing funds towards her poetry career instead of a house. It’s certainly not what we set out to do, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.
Today, Nandi is not the recipient of a free home. In fact, two years ago WAH discontinued the free home program in favor of a long-term affordable rental program. This was largely due to feedback from 20 rejected grant applications that our many talented and hardworking grant writers labored over. It was clear that the organizations we were looking to partner with believed in affordable housing. But, as WAH would learn the hard way, a free home giveaway was ultimately deemed by the philanthropic community to be a model that was too costly and unsustainable.
While we are unable to award Nandi with a house, we thank her for continuing to build Detroit’s literary community. Nandi is as deserving today as she was in 2016—and we are so grateful to Nandi for her patience throughout this difficult process.
The reason we were offering free houses to writers in the first place had a lot to do with the fact that writers salaries and job security is so bad in the first place. In the years since we’ve launched it has only gotten worse. Electric Literature’s recently ran a campaign to raise writer pay by 175%. It’s rare to see current rates published alongside a clear discussion of goals for increasing that. It’s much less shocking and media grabbing idea than “free homes!” but in its simplicity it more directly discusses and addresses the problem. In our struggle to find funding for a free home over the last few years we’ve lost a chance to part of that very important discussion about valuing writers and making their careers sustainable.
The original mission of WAH was about improving the financial health of writers and while we’re no longer leaders in that effort, we're proud to have been able to see Detroit’s literary community grow and strengthen in the last few years, with projects like The Room Project and the Tuxedo project. We wish the best for initiatives such as these, as well as for Nandi’s continued success as a poet. And we hope you’ll find a way to keep supporting writers through sustainable pay for their contributions.