What It's Like To Win A House

Photo credit: Keegam Shamlian
Like most immigrants living in between two or three worlds, my relationship with the idea of home has always been complicated and messy. For much of my 20s, I spent most of my time on the road, without a permanent address, living out of an orange suitcase, with no real desire to settle down. But that lifestyle wasn’t sustainable for me, and so one year ago, on something of a whim, I applied to win a house. Today, I write this from the living room of my own home in Detroit, MI. I have achieved the American dream — at least part of it — in a very unusual way.

I was born to parents of Armenian descent in Iran in 1984; my family immigrated to the U.S at the height of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987. We had lived through the Iranian Revolution that had changed our homeland, and we came to America as refugees. We settled in Los Angeles, like many other Iranian and Armenian families did, to escape the violence and attempt to rebuild our lives. I learned English watching The Flintstones and The Jetsons, spent weekends navigating large family gatherings that included enough food to feed a small village, obsessed over the likes of En Vogue, and became a U.S. citizen at age 18.

My parents — along with many other immigrant families — reached a level of stability that allowed them to live comfortably and become homeowners. But for my generation, the economic crisis and rising housing costs meant that the same path was no longer a realistic option. This was especially true in L.A., the eighth most expensive city in the world. There, housing costs are so exorbitant, more than half of Angelenos can’t afford their rent, let alone owning a home.

I studied journalism in college and took a job working full-time at a media company. I spent long days editing material that didn’t excite me. I quit in 2011 to pursue a freelance reporting career that took me all over the world, but offered little pay. I was in love with the work and eked by, but there was no way I’d ever have the funds to buy a home. And that was fine for a while — until it wasn’t.

I didn’t really think I would win a home when I applied to the Write A House permanent residency program. The organization hires underemployed Detroit residents to renovate houses and — in a revolutionary twist — gives them away to writers making low to moderate incomes. Applicants are judged based on their previous body of work, and the program only asks that the winner be willing to engage with Detroit’s literary community and live in the house as a primary residence. Writers pay property taxes, insurance, and utilities. After two years, Write A House hands over the deed, which means the house is yours forever.

I didn’t just apply because I thought Write A House was my only chance at achieving homeownership. I was drawn to the city of Detroit, even though I’d never called it home.

I was sitting in my rented apartment in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar when I found out I had just won a house. It was October and snowing. The air was starting to get thick with the smell of coal.

I had spent the day in the homes of mothers, sharing tea and talking about how their children were affected growing up in one of the most polluted cities in the world. And then, at 2:30 a.m., I had a Skype call that changed my life: Someone in the U.S. telling me that I had won a house. The insanity of the situation didn’t escape me, so the only sensible thing left to do in my state of delirium was to down a few shots of Mongolian vodka and fall asleep.

Five months later, when I walked up the concrete steps to my new place, there were very few things I knew for certain: After years of living a nomadic life (in which the only constant was my orange suitcase), I finally had a place to hang my clothes for more than a few weeks at a time. I would be able to sleep in a bed with sheets that I purchased, and I would say hi to the neighbors — my neighbors. I arrived in Detroit much like my parents had arrived in America nearly 30 years before. The only things I brought with me, other than my clothes, were a few handmade rugs rolled up in the same orange suitcase that had traveled with me around the world.

I slowly began filling the house, agonizing over decisions about laundry baskets and couch colors, and tending to a new, unhealthy obsession with reclaimed wood. I cooked, hoping to replicate the same comforting aroma that often permeated my mom’s kitchen. I walked around my neighborhood, a mix of Bengali, Yemeni, Bosnian, Serbian, and Ukrainian immigrants, living alongside first- and second-generation Americans of Polish descent in the most diverse zip code in Michigan. I had conversations about the best way to cook rice with the owner of a local market and attended a community meeting on economic development.

I didn’t know anyone in my new adopted hometown before I moved here, but I was fascinated by Detroit’s history and revival. I instinctively knew there were so many untold, lost stories here that had been overlooked, including one intrinsic to the history of my community: Detroit is an immigrant’s city through and through, and it gave refuge to thousands of Armenians after an Ottoman-era genocide saw the slaughter of over one million and dispersed its survivors all over the world.

And as a journalist, I was drawn to those stories.

Detroit is jarring, disorienting, wild. It has problems that are real and complicated. But it also has the strongest, most genuine sense of community I have ever seen. I feel privileged to witness its plans and share its passion. I feel honored to be part of a growing, talented crew that includes Casey Rocheteau, the inaugural Write A House winner, plus recently announced third and fourth winners Anne Elizabeth Moore and Nandi Comer — and to share such a unique, crazy experience with them.

As an outsider to Detroit, and as a writer, I thought the most important thing I could do first was listen. In the process, I also started to listen to myself. For the first time, I felt like I had physical and mental room to think, to figure out the kind of work I want to do, to build a home, and to find a sense of community.

I am slowly coming to terms with the concept of “home” and all the weight it carries. My own history and identity — kind of like Detroit's — is still tangled in a web of memory, politics, and borders. I like to think that we are figuring out all of our growing pains together.
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