SF Apartment : February 2018


Sharing is Caring

by Katherine Tom

Let’s get one thing out of the way: co-living spaces do not wish to be perceived as adult dorms. While not as ignominious as that dreaded last-resort of recent college grads—moving back in with the parents—the term “dormitory” does have more than a whiff of arrested development about it. Instead, companies like Common, WeLive and Ollie are positioning their products as an upgrade from the typical post-collegiate roommate situation. And having survived more than my fair share of Craiglist nightmares, including a rat infestation, petty theft and countless arguments over whose turn it is to clean the bathrooms, it’s hard not to see their point. 

Thanks to the sharing economy, it’s perhaps inevitable that Silicon Valley is looking to revamp the way we think of communal living, in some cases, building the experience from the ground up. And the visions of some of these companies can verge on the utopian: attend group yoga sessions, minimize your carbon footprint, collaborate creatively with like-minded individuals and even live longer (due to increased social interaction).

At their core, these co-living spaces are responding to a need in the market for short-term housing in increasingly unaffordable cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. Common, one of the front-runners in the co-living sphere, has buildings in all three of those markets as well as Chicago and, soon, Los Angeles. They seem to have hit on a winning formula: Common receives over 1,000 applications a week to fill 400 spots, each of which is attached to a six-month-minimum contract. At the end of the contract, tenants can commit to another six months.

Backfilling, so far, has not been a problem for those who need to break their lease early. When it’s time to move on, one cool feature of Common’s multicity presence kicks in: pending availability, tenants can transfer to any of Common’s other locations. With today’s increasingly itinerant tech force following the jobs, this kind of plug-and-play style of living could become the new normal. Common plans to expand from 650 bedrooms by the end of the year to 1,500 rooms in 2018. 

Many of these new spaces perform basic background checks as part of the application process. Most allow overnight guests, but guests are required to sign in, both as a security measure and a way to discourage the situation in which a significant other becomes a de-facto extra roommate. It actually all sounds safer than the typical roommate arrangement, which is usually based on a short interview and gut feelings. 
In addition, these spaces have eliminated a lot of the sources of roommate disagreements. According to a 2017 poll by Rentcafe, two of the top sources of disputes between roommates are not paying rent (20.4%) or shared bills (19.6%). Co-living spaces typically require a single monthly payment that covers all utilities, rent and amenities like weekly cleaning services (again addressing a major roommate pain point). Plus, since each renter has an individual contract, all tenants aren’t on the hook for one roommate’s irresponsibility. 

The majority of co-living spaces come furnished, with necessities like wifi and utilities already set up. As Ellis Tran, San Francisco home manager for Common put it, “All you need to move in is your laptop.” I took a tour of their Minna location, and the living area was nicely furnished: more lived in than a hotel, but much nicer than a typical twentysomething’s space. There were board games stacked on the shelves, presumably to encourage socializing between roommates. The kitchen was equipped with basics like pots and pans, and appliances like a blender and coffeemaker. Each floor boasted its own washer and dryer. Nicest of all, perhaps, was the rooftop deck, serenely perched above the chaos of one of the grungier parts of SOMA. 

One of the biggest draws of the new co-living concept is the built-in camaraderie of having a set of instant friends (more than one article about co-living actually draws comparisons to Friends, that mainstay sitcom of the ‘90s). While Common uses Slack for its residents to self-organize in an informal way, its competitor Ollie promises “an exciting array of both in- and out-of-building experiences, everything from rooftop gatherings catered by up-and-coming local chefs, talks held by thought-leaders with expertise across a wide range of fields, and sunset yoga sessions on the sky terrace...and even group vacations.” WeLive, an offshoot of popular co-working space WeWork, actually hosts an annual summer camp. 

Meanwhile, investors are taking notice. According to Business Insider, WeWork (currently valued at $20 billion) is projecting that 20% of their revenue will come from their WeLive venture by 2018. Common is finalizing a $40-million round of fundraising, after a successful $16-million Series B round last June. Some of that money will go toward Common’s first ground-up construction slated for Los Angeles, where they’ll be able to expand on some of their ideas about conscious design choices to create opportunities for social interaction. In an interview on Common’s blog, Director of Design and Construction Sophie Wilkinson discusses how even something as simple as the choice of furniture, in this case, a “massive Restoration Hardware leather couch” can create an environment that fosters meaningful conversations. 

In a now-famous study about dorm architecture, it was discovered that people who lived near functional architectural features (such as stairwells) made more friends than their more physically isolated peers. In keeping with those findings, WeLive’s common areas are located right by the entrance. According to Fast Company, “The idea is to give people the chance to participate in the building’s offerings like Sunday-night suppers, game nights or fitness classes, without asking them to take a social risk.” The word “community” is mentioned six times on WeLive’s home page, along with quotes from members about the friendships they’ve made. 

From a landlord or real estate developer’s point of view, services like Common can take a lot of the headaches out of tenant management. An article on Curbed states: “Common is finding success in creating an operational model that makes sense, and reduces some of the biggest burdens for landlords: keeping tenants and keeping them happy.” Another intriguing prospect is the number of units that can fit into a building when common areas are shared. At WeLive’s Wall Street building, units average 450 square feet, topping out at 1,000 square feet. By the time they finish converting the building, they will have added 600 fully-furnished apartment units to the area. For space-strapped cities where demand outstrips supply (San Francisco, for example), co-living could provide a much-needed solution. 

In some exciting ways, the new co-living concerns are staking out untapped markets and new visions of what the roommate experience can be. From a legal standpoint, however, new is not necessarily good. I spoke to a couple of lawyers specializing in property law. One, who declined to go on record, described co-living as “unchartered and risky.” Matthew Quiring, at Fried Williams, explained that, “In general, the law assumes a hierarchal relationship: the owner, the tenant, and then subtenant (if any).” In other words, one way of thinking about this is as a bundle of traditional landlord-tenant relationships with each of the individual residents. On the other hand, he said, those who choose to adopt the co-living label more explicitly, “would certainly be sailing against the current, and into murky waters.”

Ikea’s R&D division recently launched an online survey at onesharedhouse2030.com, designed to gather information about the general public’s feelings about co-living. Over 40,000 people have responded so far and many of the results seem to support a move toward more co-living in urban centers. The majority of respondents prefer to live in the city, would pay extra for a service layer to manage all house-related items, and don’t need their own kitchen. The biggest concern cited is potential lack of privacy. Directly under the survey results rests one stark demand, “Are you ready for the future?”

Katherine Tom is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.