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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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Living Together, Alone

Say goodbye to your one-bedroom apartment, meet your new housemates, and get ready to share a kitchen. The communal living moment may finally be upon us.

The Nook on Valdez is in a part of Oakland that is walking distance to Whole Foods, Lake Merritt, and a handful of construction sites. The building is modern and simple — from afar, it looks like any multilevel apartment building — and a property manager named Cristian kindly ushers me to his office, which doubles as the lobby of this edifice. The Nook is a microhousing apartment complex with communal spaces that residents share. The lobby is stark but surprisingly welcoming; there are coworking tables, some at standing-height level. There’s a stocked refrigerator and a Frito Lay variety pack on the counter. Cushioned seats line the walls, and the high ceilings make this modest space feel roomier. This building — mild, modern, and far from ostentatious — could very well be the future of middle-class housing in America.

We start our tour by following an outdoor walkway around the building to a side entrance, and then into yet another common space, the laundry room. This isn’t just any laundry room, though. Inside, there’s a stylish plush chair, a couch, and a huge television. Against the wall, there’s a high-tech parcel delivery machine, where packages are safely held for residents. Cristian, who is no older than 27, takes me to the elevator and up a few stories so I can see a room. It’s the only room left — all of the others have been rented. In fact, they were all rented sight unseen, before the Nook had even opened in October 2016. This last unit will be occupied by a new resident starting tomorrow.

Each floor of the Nook on Valdez has communal areas. Each unit features appliances — like minifridges and microwaves — but residents have access to larger shared kitchens and other spaces as well. These kitchens leave something to be desired: just a table and some stools, an oven, a small amount of counter space, and a refrigerator positioned against the wall. On the range above the oven, the message "CLEAN UP AFTER YO SELF" is written in alphabet magnets. "Residents … leave messages sometimes," Cristian laughs.

(Molly McHugh)
(Molly McHugh)

The best common space, though, is the rooftop, with its uninterrupted view of Oakland (including the ample construction in the area) and its surrounding hills. There is a grill and a fire pit, quaint string lights, and plenty of plush seating. It is what I understand to be the property’s "wow factor."

(Molly McHugh)
(Molly McHugh)

But all these shared areas are not what I’m here to see — I want to see the apartments. The tiny, tiny apartments. The Nook’s units range in size from 181 to 255 square feet, and in price from $1,585 to $1,860 a month. Typical one-bedrooms in the area start at $3,100, Cristian tells me. (I lived in Oakland from 2013 to 2014, in an 800-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with an area for an office, a private porch, and a sanctuary of a shared backyard. It was about two miles north of this very building. I paid $2,195 a month.)

The room Cristian shows me is small, though not as small as I expected. It’s a lofted unit, so the ceilings are raised. The city didn’t zone the space for a bed to be put in the lofted area, so there’s a sign that says "Storage Only" leading up to the loft. Tenants can decide for themselves whether to put a mattress up there. There’s a small table and a desk, both of which fold up; against the wall, there’s a microkitchen with a sink, a minifridge, and a microwave. The bathroom is huge — it’s bigger than mine. Zoning laws, I’m told. I try to picture my furniture in this space; my bed certainly wouldn’t fit and neither would my kitchen table, but I could pare down and make this work. For less than $2,000 in the Bay Area, I’d be thrilled to.

(Molly McHugh)
(Molly McHugh)

"We don’t have a specific age range, to be honest," Cristian says when I ask him if it’s mostly younger people who live in the building. "We comply with fair-housing laws, so whoever qualifies, whatever age, race, whatever, if you meet the application criteria you can live here." After some prodding later, Cristian says that there are young people living at the Nook as well as retirees and some people who live in other cities but fly into the Bay Area often enough for work that they need a place. Cristian also lives at the Nook.

"Do you like it?" I ask him.

"I do, yeah. It works for me. At first, I thought, ‘This is really small … this is … crazy,’" he says. "But in all honestly, when you think about the reality of it, I don’t need much space. I’m never home. I’m always at work. After work I go meet up with friends, go to the gym, go out to eat, go back, shower, sleep, do it again the next day. And it’s been great so far."

And what about bonding with his neighbors? "It’s, uh … so far, everyone’s been very friendly, but we haven’t quite gotten a feel for that yet." It’s been only a couple of months; the community is still jelling. Next month, the Nook is holding a rooftop party for the residents to meet one another.

At the Nook’s opening, management invited community members to come see the complex. "We had a lot of developers visit us, too," says Cristian. "They want to do similar projects like this in the area."

Technology created the possibility of and opportunity for the communal living movement. While advancements like cars, television, phones, the internet, and Postmates have motivated us to be apart, the technology industry itself is forcing us together in the most literal way. Cities where tech companies are putting down roots — Los Angeles, Austin, New York, the Bay Area, Seattle — are experiencing housing crises. Home ownership is a distant dream for most of the people who live in these cities and work in this industry. Hell, renting an apartment alone is out of reach for most. So we live together. We find roommates on Craigslist, move in with our romantic partners earlier than is advisable, or, maybe, we turn to communal living centers like the Nook or Common.

"I didn’t set out to start a company in the cohousing space," says Common founder Brad Hargreaves. "I just saw a need for people in New York who live with roommates. Developers aren’t thinking of them, and they certainly aren’t building for them … but it’s a huge part of the population."

Common has houses in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., and it’s looking to expand. While the Nook looks like your average apartment complex in most senses, Common is more like a house, or maybe like a dreamy dormitory. The shared spaces are homier, and incredibly posh. The rooms are fairly standard, though without even the few amenities afforded to Nook residents, like the minifridge and microwave. "We really set out to remove annoyances and challenges of living with others while keeping the good parts," Hargreaves says, "the sense of community, the affordability."

(Via <a href="https://www.facebook.com/hellocommon">Common’s Facebook page</a>)
(Via Common’s Facebook page)

The concept of communal living recalls Airbnb. Between my many moves over the past few years, I’ve occasionally used long-term Airbnb rentals, sometimes in someone’s home, sometimes in a place of my own. Of course, Airbnb has found itself in legal predicaments in certain cities, particularly in New York. So what separates Common from Airbnb? For one thing, you can’t just leave Common after a few nights — for now, Common is sticking with one-year leases. This is what most often plagues Airbnb: Legally, guests renting entire apartments are supposed to stay for 30 days minimum if a unit is not zoned as a hotel.

"New York City is actively pursuing heavy fines against anyone who is renting their unit for less than 30 days — they’re still under a lot of pressure," says Hargreaves. He doesn’t think things will get easier, either. "The fundamental challenge [Airbnb] face from a policy perspective is that they are removing housing stock from the market; we’re actually adding housing stock to the market by creating density. Airbnb landlords are taking entirely rent-stabilized buildings off the market and renting them out by the night, and it’s hard to justify that from a policy perspective." Still, though Airbnb’s model might not be favorable to Common legally, it’s certainly encouraged an attitude of sharing a home with strangers and doing so in a less "hippie" way, à la Couchsurfing.

(Via <a href="https://www.facebook.com/hellocommon">Common’s Facebook page</a>)
(Via Common’s Facebook page)

Then there is the other side of technology that has encouraged the communal living trend: that it can work, in a modern, eco-friendly, tech-savvy way. Communal living is not new, but this is the first time it’s broken out of its crunchy, granola roots. Advancements that seem simple — flat-screen TVs and compact kitchens, for example — have made it easier to put people in tinier and tinier apartments, while giving them the swanky, aspirational modern homes they couldn’t own alone. (Remember that TV I mentioned from the Nook’s laundry room? It’s easily five times the size of mine.)

It’s important for communities like Common to make sure that they are not confused with communes or hacker houses. While these new setups may (mainly) share locations and motivations with their predecessors, they want to be seen as the next generation of communal life — as a default option for living rather than an alternative lifestyle. "We certainly did have to go through some education to separate ourselves from the ad hoc hacker houses, and I think starting in New York helped a lot," says Hargreaves. "And we call our buildings ‘homes’ and see them as homes, and places to live."

That communal living centers can look like Common or the Nook (or some of the various other options, like WeLive, WeWork’s home-sharing option, or the recently launched Starcity) and come with modern technologies and still allow young people to live in competitive metro areas is certainly persuasive. But the simple psychology of togetherness might be a deceptively strong factor too. "I think this generation is more comfortable with sharing," says Hargreaves. "Think about ridesharing — you’re going to get in a stranger’s car because an app told you to. That’s a pretty strange phenomenon for my parents’ generation, let alone my grandparents’ generation."

For every product that has managed to connect us, there are 10 more than have made it easier to be siloed off from one another. I might know this better than most: For nearly two years, I lived on a small island in the Caribbean and worked remotely. I relied on VPNs, Google Hangouts, and hotspots to do my job. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp were how I communicated with everyone back home, as well as on the island — without data, we were all entirely reliant on Wi-Fi-based chat apps. I was connected in every sense of the word except the most literal, because on the island, I was actually more alone than I have ever been. I spent my days in the makeshift office in my kitchen. I talked to people — most of them in San Francisco and New York — all day; sometimes I saw them via Skype or Google Hangouts, but mostly I just threw my voice across the sea, and when I hung up and disconnected after work, their voices disappeared, the world became small, and everything was quiet.

According to Laura Seidman, an energy efficiency consultant who also teaches at the University of San Francisco, the advancement that made it possible for us to be more separate than ever goes back much further than my armory of web-based toys. "The downfall of humanity is the invention of the refrigerator," she says. "When I was living in Brooklyn, the infrastructure existed from the earlier days, and on my way home I would pass a green grocer, a fruit seller, a fishmonger, the bagel place, the pizza place. That would get you out in the community. And that’s what I think is interesting here," she says, gesturing at the common space in the Nook we’re sitting in. Seidman also went on the tour with me. "This place takes away your fridge, your storage capacity, and I think that’s so fundamental to life — don’t accumulate!"

There are a handful of technologies aside from the refrigerator, and before remote-worker robots and even the internet, that made it easier to isolate. Air conditioning encouraged us to stay inside instead of cooling off on our front porches, chatting with neighbors. Television allowed for nightly entertainment. The phone, of course, dramatically changed the speed and frequency with which we could communicate, but it also created a kind of physical stasis. And now, in addition to the internet, we have the shut-in economy born of it: Netflix, Amazon, Postmates, Instacart.

But back to the refrigerator. Seidman can’t get over the refrigerator. "It isolated us from our food sources so we just go and buy massive quantities of food in a faceless, featureless grocery store, and by doing that, we’ve lost touch with our food" and each other, she says. Seidman is obsessed with the idea of community. She studied in Oxford, England, where, she says, "they believe in communities — the town centers, the commons. It matters." Against her preferences, she has recently bought a modest 700-square-foot condo in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood; she and her partner raise chickens in the backyard and share some of the space with neighbors, who live in a unit in the backyard. Before this, though, she had lived in a tiny space in Japan, a trailer, and a 400-square-foot apartment near Lake Merritt. She is comfortable — really, more at home — in small spaces that force her to take part in her community. And this is the idea she believes more Americans need to embrace.

"Nobody comes to the front yard anymore. In Europe, there’s this idea of ‘home zones,’ where you take the streets and you shrink them down and pave them as if they’re all playground, and it doesn’t look like a car should be there," she says. "Technically there’s enough room for a car to pass but they have to go really slow, because there are obstacles and kids playing and the whole purpose is to bring people out. It’s the opposite of what we do here; everything we do here is to give people things so they can stay inside their boxes."

So is the Nook the new model for modern life?

"I don’t know that this place has totally nailed the common space," says Seidman. We both agree the kitchens could use some work — eating together is important, and the spaces could be more inviting. "But it’s a good prototype." Eventually, I have to ask her: Does she own a refrigerator? "Yes, I do have a refrigerator!" she laughs. She uses it mostly for the chicken food.

There’s a certain angst among millennials regarding homeownership. We are a generation plagued by debt and a life of renting — our cars, our apartments, our free time. The on-demand lifestyle has seeped into how we think about ownership: I don’t actually own my movies or music, I rent them. Some of my friends have the contents for their dinners delivered in a box to their door, and they pay for this in weekly increments. We are comfortable with this ownership-less life, but for some reason, a certain anxiety about owning a home persists. Owning a home in all of the cities I’ve lived in (save the Caribbean) has been out of my price range. But … is that such a bad thing?

"Who exactly is doing this criticizing?" asks Seidman when I tell her about generational homeownership (or rather, non-ownership) frustration. "Is it actually millennials or is it other people on behalf of millennials?" Seidman’s students are around my age, she says, and one of the most surprising things she’s learned over the course of teaching them is the aversion they have to the past’s idea of home. "We went through the history of the suburban boom and why the American dream was to have your own place and to have your big lot and a place for your big car, and my students said, ‘People don’t want that anymore; millennials don’t want that.’"

There is certainly an argument to be made for renting. But the freeing feeling that comes with being adaptable and locationally untethered can also come with bouts of isolation. I know what it’s like to become homesick, but to also feel like you’ve lost a home to be sick for. There’s still something to be said for putting down roots and creating a place that’s yours.

"House ownership is not for everybody," she gently tells me after I relay my personal anxieties over being so transient for the past few years. "It’s because of that mentality that we have the freaking suburbs." Seidman knows it’s not that simple, though, and also noted that the suburbs were a product of the postwar era — people wanted out of the cities, to have their own land and create their own family units on it without being entirely dedicated to rural life. But that’s clearly not our mentality now.

Co-living makes sense for and is primarily marketed to younger clientele who are trying to find a way to afford living in expensive cities. That doesn’t mean it isn’t ideal for others, though — one demographic in particular is young parents. "We’re so fragmented from the nuclear family thanks to the suburban model," says Seidman. "The idea is that when you have a family, when you decide to have children, you’re on your own. I have a lot of young friends and they’re having babies right now, and they’re frantic. They have jobs and this baby they can’t afford to send to daycare because we’re so, so fragmented. Everything is isolated. So if you could take something like [co-living] and bring people back together so that you can incorporate the ability to have a family, then you could have a community taking care of children like we used to do."

Right now, she says, looking at the co-living prototypes out there, they immediately bring to mind the young urban professionals who could afford to live in them. A quick scan the marketing tools they use to appeal to potential consumers helps suggest exactly that image. But, Seidman points out, young professionals grow up. "They grow up, and guess what — they have the urge to procreate!"

I mention a story I wrote a few months back about parenting technology. "What does it mean to be a parent now? People are raising their kids now without ever having touched a baby before," Dr. Harvey Karp, of swaddling fame, told me at the time. "That’s never happened in human history." Karp has a product called SNOO, which uses his method to rock a baby back to sleep. He came up with this idea while thinking about how isolated young parents are, and how they used to have close family around — or, in previous generations, night nurses — to help with infants. Now, young parents are alone, and sleepless, and SNOO is a high-tech solution to a very old problem. Of course, it’s prohibitively expensive: $1,160. I mention this, as well as a variety of other digital baby products, and she says, well, those sound great — but what if a communal living space could share all of these? What if young parents living in a place like the Nook or WeLive or Common could all access and use a SNOO instead of each purchasing one for their individual homes out in the burbs?

Hargreaves also sees the benefit in co-living for young parents — because he is one. We chatted while he was on the way to the airport, and he warned that upon arrival, he was going to need to hang up and call me back so he could help with the process of getting a car seat and stroller out of the car. "The impetus and value of sharing is bigger as a young parent than as a young single person," he says. "A young single person is easier to serve from a business standpoint, but the broader concept of sharing things and sharing space — there’s a huge need there for young families." Ideologically, it feels like there are more barriers to overcome in regard to co-living for young parents than for young singles, but the benefits might be greater if we could be convinced of the merit.

"I just think we’re in an era of shifting priorities," Seidman explained. "Millennials are looking at their parents and grandparents and saying, ‘You’re not happy. This model did not bring you happiness.’ They’re saying, ‘I don’t want to do what you did.’"

There is more to consider than just the people living inside these new habitats; there is also where they’re being plotted. Corianne Scally is a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, where she studies the effects of affordable-housing policy and implementation. We talked about what would happen to urban housing planning if co-living significantly took off. Standard zoning laws that prevent developers from creating shared quarters could be one issue, she says.

"The other thing that I think is kind of ironic is if we’re talking about affordable housing for low-income and moderate-income households, we would be talking about overcrowding, not co-living — so I think the term in and of itself is very interesting branding. It’s fine, but I think it can definitely overshadow some of the potential downsides to promoting this kind of housing as … well, like a dormitory for a post-college experience. Dorms are temporary and to me it sounds like this model is trying to fill a niche in what could be a temporary market. … The need might not be temporary but the inhabitants might be. And I think there would definitely be consequences, then, if a bunch of these popped up in a single community, for example."

This temporary-resident problem is one of the issues opponents of Airbnb cite: Residents who are connected to their neighborhoods are put off by the idea of homes being turned into hotels or apartments with ever-rotating tenants. And while the leases on co-living units are longer than a couple of weeks or a month, residents can stay for relatively short bouts — a mere few nights with WeLive, and Starcity’s shortest lease is three months. (Common’s shortest lease period is the standard one year.)

The option to pack up and leave is a tempting one (seriously, just ask me), but it doesn’t always sit well with the neighbors staying put. Co-living certainly is benefiting from the paradigm shift that’s come with the peer-to-peer economy when it comes to sharing spaces, but the other side of that — the on-demand side — also makes things feel instantly attainable and perhaps a bit temporary. You can quickly acquire a home and a community within it, but you can just as easily move on to the next one.

Scally says that these sorts of setups can benefit a city struggling with housing costs. "There is a need for a diversity of options, for affordable options … but if I were a city, if I worked for a city, I would be thinking carefully about zoning implications, land-use implications, the types of places where developers are submitting applications," she says. "I would be thinking how does this fit in with the fabric of the city and the neighborhood. It seems like there will be some hard questions for cities to ask."

And even after asking the hard questions about whether and where this makes sense, you have to consider whether this option truly addresses the housing cost crisis. Some of the options still come with pricey rents, though the idea is you save on not covering utilities. Common’s cheapest Albany, New York, rental is $1,340 a month, and its most expensive is $2,600 a month in San Francisco; depending on the city and the size of the space, starting rental prices from WeLive range from $1,200 to $3,050. And that’s just to start. For where they are, these remain affordable-ish to middle-class renters for now — but what about in a few years?

"This is a little blip on the supply screen, and the question is, How long will these remain affordable, you know? Because if demand grows and supply doesn’t keep up, then the prices will just continue to climb," says Scally. "So I think that I would still question whether in the long term that the folks who can afford these units now will be able to afford them later."

The new co-living model will make sense for many more people than its predecessors: No one is being asked to live in the middle of nowhere, or sleep in a closet or on a bunk bed. And Seidman is right when she says that my generation has more choices than ever in what we want our home lives to look like. But is there possibly a consequence to co-living like this? I consider all of the autonomy that living alone has given me: I pay my electric, water, and internet bills. I know how to contact my landlord and negotiate when something needs to be fixed, or when I want to alter something about my unit. I set up my Wi-Fi, Chromecast, and Roku. I drag the trash and recycling cans up and down the driveway. And I take pride in my home — I painted two rooms, I even installed a floating bookshelf (OK, with some help). I may not be a homeowner, but I certainly have a degree of autonomy that residents in places like Common or WeLive don’t; utilities are taken care of for you, and shared spaces are cleaned by employees. WeLive even has an app that shows you its community events; it feels like a fully featured home and life management service. It’s a little like living in a high-end, high-tech dorm forever — yes, it’s often more environmentally friendly, but opting for this lifestyle could change us in some ways. There might be something of a Peter Pan complex that could infiltrate areas that are already plagued by this problem.

But fretting over psychological drawbacks comes second to addressing physical needs. "People say we’re forcing people into this," says David Allen, founder of Trestle Development, which oversees the Nook. "But what gets lost on people [is] … how could you do that to someone? Like we’re forcing this on people. I think it’s an interesting way to think about it, because the only other option for some people is to live in a run-down house."

Allen worked in affordable housing for years before starting his own business creating modern micro-unit complexes with shared spaces. "When prices shot up, it really forced millennials and other people looking for cheaper alternatives to share housing. Whether it was an eight-bedroom Victorian or a building like ours, the reality is the way people are getting affordable housing now is by sharing amenities — sharing kitchens, sharing bathrooms, giving up that large living space for convenience and affordability. In an environment where your only other affordable option is to rent a house with five to 10 roommates, then this looks awfully attractive."

It’s interesting to hear Allen discuss the charge that a certain demographic is being forced into this idea. Earlier, Seidman explained it as more choice than we’ve ever had. It might be a little of both. Allen says there’s an element of "what’s new is old" to this situation. "These big employment centers are massively creating jobs for people who need to find housing anywhere where they can get to work, and now we’re stuffing more and more people into these job centers and people need housing so they can get to and from work easily."

So is it a choice, or the absence of one? Will modern, new-age co-living break us out of the suburban and shut-in economy isolation? Will it turn us into forever dorm-dwellers? It’s too soon to tell, but one thing seems certain for high-demand metro areas: It’s coming, because it has to.

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