Young Americans are forever looking to improve on the mistakes of previous generations. And that includes their living situations. Many members of Generation X and Y don’t want to repeat their parents’ lives, staying in the town where they were raised or moving to the suburb with 2.5 kids. These models look outdated and, to some, even failed. Cities—once seen as blighted—are now desirable as an alternative to the 1950s suburban lifestyle. Those twinkling lights promise: Stay cultured, interesting and engaged—forever!
Perhaps, as a result, cities are becoming so expensive that low-, middle- and even some upper middle–income families are being squeezed out. In 2015, workers aged 22 to 34 paid nearly a third of their income on rent, according to Bloomberg.
Micro apartments are a slightly more affordable answer for some, squeezing life into an isolated rectangle of a few hundred square feet. Now, the once-utopian city is beginning to look like its own dystopia with cramped silos of lonely workers who toil long hours just to afford it. (You only need to peek at the latest IKEA catalog for a glimpse into our claustrophobic futures.)
What’s an urbane person, who isn’t megarich, supposed to do? What does a quality life look like now?
Coliving might be one answer.
One lawnmower for all
When my boyfriend and I went to check out a new coliving development in the decidedly suburban Fair Oaks, California, the sales pitch was clear: Ditch the single-family home. Skip the overpriced urban apartment. Don’t isolate yourself in either the sticks or the city—instead, live amongst a group of people who will always be there for you like a modern-day tribe. In the development, residents will live in separate houses that all face the same community room and pedestrian park.
Gina Massey, one of the leaders of the Fair Oaks Eco Housing development, was excited about the prospect of sharing. “Not everyone has to own a lawnmower!” she said.
This is just one version of the coliving dream. At minimum, coliving simply means a group of people who live together and help one another, whether they are actual roommates or dwelling in separate houses. Their support and bonding can take many forms. Sometimes, members simply share meals. In other places, they split chores and barter skills. Coliving, or cohousing, is like a grown-up co-op: not as crunchy, lawless or loud, more classy and clean with standardized personal boundaries overseen by management.
Coliving, or cohousing, is like a grown-up co-op: not as crunchy, lawless or loud, more classy and clean with standardized personal boundaries overseen by management.
In Fair Oaks Eco Housing, residents are encouraged to “tread lightly” on the Earth, and given the tools to do so with a shared organic garden and energy efficient buildings. They envision young families living alongside their elders, with the substitute “grandparents” pitching in with another setback of modern life: the dual-income family with both parents off at work. They envision meetings to come to a democratic consensus, like the traditional commune or co-op—but not too many.
“We’re not doing this because we want to spend our life in meetings,” said another leader, Mary Maskall. “We’re doing this because we want a better life.”
Friends at the ready
In big cities, coliving also gives urbanites social support and occasionally cheaper rent. To save money, the dozen or so roommates in 5,000-square-foot apartments often pool resources such as grocery bills, and the apartments come pre-furnished. The idea has grown in tandem with coworking.
Both models offer something for the growing legion of remote workers and digital nomads. As more people hop between cities and leave their homes to pursue work, they often need to build a social network from scratch. Not to mention, digital workers are often independent freelancers who work from home. Coliving and coworking offer a response: Here is your ready-made work team and friend group.
Coliving and coworking offer a response: Here is your ready-made work team and friend group.
“As we’re more and more connected online and we don’t have to go into an office, we start realizing we’re missing our support structures,” says Jacob Sayles, co-founder of Office Nomads in Seattle. “You can work in a coffeeshop, but nobody cares if you have a horrible day or make a huge sale. Coliving and coworking bring in that support network that we’ve been missing.
“Otherwise you go crazy. We have people come into Office Nomads: this one woman said, ‘If I died in my apartment, no one would know for three weeks.' I was like, ‘You should come here and work! We’ll notice right away!’”
Time of intention
Sayles and his wife are about to move to Vancouver, and they’re trying to find the right coliving community—but they’ve only found spaces that are filled exclusively with twentysomethings. Still, they’re determined. “We need to build a social structure that we take for granted in Seattle. Starting from scratch is a difficult thing to do. I’m working at a coworking space, but I don’t want to have all my eggs in that basket.”
He says coliving beats living with roommates. “If the intention is to be together, then that smooths out a lot of things. If you’re making the choice to live with an intentional community and your favorite glass from a Nirvana concert broke in the sink and you’re devastated, you know it’s part of living with other people. If you’re only living with other people because it’s cheaper rent, it’s a more escalated problem. It’s a different intention.”
Even for full-time workers who go into the office and work late hours, coliving has something to offer. “You have a social life embedded at home, you don’t have to reach out to friends and organize things on a random Tuesday night,” says Jay Standish, co-founder of OpenDoor Coliving based in Oakland. “If you end work at 8 p.m., it’s not one more thing you have to figure out.”
“You have a social life embedded at home, you don’t have to reach out to friends and organize things on a random Tuesday night.” - Jay Standish
OpenDoor bills itself as the longest-running coliving company. In 2014, they launched the Farmhouse in Berkeley (with chickens, a fire pit, and “regular jam sessions,” according to its website). In Oakland, they’ve since launched The Canopy (committed to knowledge sharing) and Euclid Manor (a sophisticated home that “feels like a page out of Sherlock Holmes”). Each house establishes its own culture. Standish and his fellow co-founders give the original tenants the tools to interview new roommates, and the group of 10 or more people grows from there.
To him, this way of living is more natural. “This sort of clan-based domestic unit or group is a more traditional way of living,” he says. “On the plains of Africa, we didn’t live as two parents and two-point-five children going alone on the Savannah. It was people who all lived together in this small roaming encampment, so it’s a more natural group size.”
It was only natural
Coliving is the “natural counterpart” to the growth of coworking spaces, says Standish. They respond to similar demographic shifts, such as the gig economy and remote work. “It’s also a response to increased housing costs in major cities sure and the Millennial ethos of access rather than ownership, and people waiting longer to get married.”
Standish believes that many of the benefits of coliving can also be found in a coworking environment. “You get a lot of synchronistic resources because you have tentacles out to 10 people: Do you know a good life coach? Can I borrow your gear? I have a question about my job; do you know how to negotiate for better pay?”
“You have a group of people who have your back," he says. "It’s not you against the world.” For an isolated freelancer looking out from the peephole-like window of a lonely micro apartment, these coliving and coworking spaces seem like the next generation’s answer.
Based in Sacramento, Rebecca Huval writes about design and the many ways it intersects with our world, including tech, food and culture. Her bylines have appeared in publications such as the Awl, GOOD and Communication Arts, where she served as managing editor. Find her on Twitter: @bhuval.