Sculpture and image by Elise

The Commune Makes a Comeback

From San Francisco to New York, co-living solutions are going mainstream — and upscale.

Whether in the form of a cozy studio or a three-story brownstone, for most Americans, the real estate dream has always been to have some room of one’s own. “Good fences make good neighbors,” the poet Robert Frost once wrote, summarizing a national sentiment that’s tended to prize privacy and personal space.

But a remarkable new movement known as co-living or cohousing is disrupting this basic assumption about what desirable homes look like, instead embracing residential arrangements that encourage and facilitate built-in communities. An umbrella term, co-living encompasses a diverse array of options, from luxurious rentals where affluent creatives bond over meditation classes and shared kitchens to back-to-the-land collectives intended for empty-nesters.

The trend has been bolstered by a surge of entrepreneurial and development companies seeking to cater to the growing demand for co-living options, a rise precipitated by skyrocketing rents in major cities, an aging class of Baby Boomers, and a rising cultural tolerance for sharing. Even condominiums that aren’t expressly co-living oriented are offering more and more communal amenities to draw in millennials.

Over the course of the past year, the co-living phenomenon burst onto the public stage in major American cities, thanks in particular to the efforts of two highly polished, well-funded start-ups. In April of last year, the property manager WeWork, valued at $16 billion, launched its residential co-living venture WeLive in Brooklyn and Washington DC, offering furnished apartments available month-to-month. Then in December, Common — a co-living real estate company that currently rents shared spaces in New York and San Francisco — expanded to DC’s Shaw neighborhood with a 24-bedroom unit. By the end of 2017, they plan to open in three new cities.

The WeWork West Broadway location’s open layout invites collaboration. Source: WeWork site

On the West Coast, California real estate firm OpenDoor specializes in coliving, running three houses in Berkeley and Oakland, including Euclid Manor, a 6,200-square-foot mansion that’s home to 11 residents who cook, clean, and play under the same roof. In San Francisco, 21st-century communes like Assembly, the Loft, and the Convent are flourishing, offering digital nomads, entrepreneurs, and coders the chance to pal around and network.

“We’re seeing large numbers of people moving to major metropolitan areas who need a secure, inviting place to live,” say Bridgette Farrer, Common’s West Coast general manager. To date, Common has received more than 10,000 applications for spots at its five properties scattered throughout Brooklyn — including an upscale, 20,000-square-foot, 12-suite complex in Williamsburg — and two in San Francisco. Roughly half of the residents — typically professionals in the 20-to-30 age range — are new to the cities. The appeal of Common, says Farrer, is, “about an idea of community, wanting to know your neighbors, creating a sense of home through living with others, events, and dinners.”

Residents pay from $1,340 to $2,600 for single bedrooms outfitted with West Elm furniture; Casper mattresses and Parachute linens are provided. Bathrooms are occasionally shared, as are spaces like kitchens, living rooms, and roof decks. Common living is fairly cushy: cleaning crews come through weekly to keep things tidy, paper products and kitchen supplies are regularly stocked, and utilities and WiFi are folded into the monthly fee.

Common eschews the comparison to “adult dorms,” though the spaces — and the plethora of organized group activities including book clubs and bowling outings — do resemble collegial environments meant to foster friendships between strangers.

“There’s a good segment of the population that’s eager to have a more social living experience,” says Jason Stoffer, a general partner at venture capital firm Maveron, which led a $7.35 million Series A financing round for Common in 2015. Stoffer now sits on its board of directors. “A big thesis of ours is that millennials in particular want to work, play, and live differently than the generations before them.”

A stylish aesthetic and contemporary finishes typify Common’s living quarters in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. Source: Common site

Co-living — with its idealistic undertones and potential to disrupt a massive market — has become catnip for the VC community. WeWork, which has raised roughly $1.7 billion in private capital, believes that WeLive will account for 21% of its revenue (around $605.9 million) by 2018, according to a leaked investor pitch.

Commenters have pointed out that while co-living might seem unorthodox by contemporary standards, modes of collective living dot the history of human civilization, dating back to inter-family hunter-gatherer tribes and medieval-era common houses. With society showing a healthy appetite for sharing economy innovators like Uber and Airbnb, investors are betting that coliving could start shifting the real estate paradigm in the near future.

“Are developers in three or five years going to be building units from the ground up, designed for this concept? I have no doubt,” says Stoffer. “I think the appeal plays out across multiple generations, multiple demographics, and multiple types of housing.”

In fact, the other segment of the population which has expressed the most interest in communal living situations are Baby Boomers and seniors. “There’s a shift in the culture where enough people feel like they don’t have to do what their parents did,” says Charles Durrett, a California architect who’s designed approximately 55 cohousing developments. “A lot of Boomers, after the experience of putting their parents into assisted care or nursing care, are looking for new options.” Durrett helped popularize the term and concept of cohousing in the US after discovering such communities in Denmark in the 1970s.

Mountain View’s community gardens foster connection between residents. Source: Mountain View Cohousing site

These neighborhoods blend private homes with large shared spaces and a philosophy of codependency. The Cohousing Association of the United States estimates there are presently around 160 such communities in the country, with another 130 in the process of forming. They range from ventures like Serenbe, a stylish New Urbanist development outside Atlanta to the expansive Mountain View Cohousing Community, a Bay Area hamlet of 19 condominiums whose units went for $900,000 to $1.1 million.

Especially when kids move away, older generations find themselves looking for living arrangements where they can be helped and help each other. “We have 20 seniors in the cohousing community I live in, and they wax about how much they learn from each other and how much they need each other,” says Durrett. “It’s palpable. You walk in, and you just see a lot of people doing things together.”

While the greater portion of the population may not be quite ready for full-on co-living situations yet, a number of real estate professionals are already seeing reverberations in the larger industry that appear to reflect a similar trend. “I think in this digitally connected world, people are looking to be more physically connected to each other,” says Stoffer.

Home ownership has decreased dramatically for millennials; according to one estimate, roughly 70% of people in the 18–34 age bracket rent. Meanwhile, there’s been a jump in demand among millennials for smaller square footage apartments in condos and rental buildings that feature plush communal amenities. Vegetable and herb gardens, dog parks, mini-movie theaters, and yoga studios are just some of the offerings developers are increasingly including. In the end, the ultimate luxury for today’s plugged-in savants may simply be old-fashioned good company.