Shruti Merchant had a problem when she moved to San Francisco a few years ago.
She didn’t really know anyone in the SF scene and, because she was working all the time, didn’t really have a chance to get connected to a group she could call her own.
It’s an old story for anyone moving out to a new place, but for Merchant, and others like her, the idea that there can be a better way to move to a place, and live in a city, has led to the creation of new co-living spaces.
In the old days, these spaces (once called communes by a generation less capitalized but perhaps no less idealistic) grew organically around shared interests and common themes… and a rejection of what were the prevailing social norms of the day.
But now, as with many other things, the counter-culture of days past has been commoditized, capitalized and sanitized. The youthful idealism remains, but the song, certainly, is not the same.
“Rather than sifting through online listings, or living alone in an apartment for one, we started HubHaus to offer an easy way for professionals to find quality shared housing solutions with a true sense of community,” Shruti writes in a blog post about the new financing the company has received.
That shared community is young, urban, professional and mobile.
“We do all the work — from creating welcoming homes in neighborhoods you want to live in and setting up Wi-Fi and utilities to furnishing the place and finding people you’ll love living with,” Merchant writes to her prospective customers.
General Catalyst has bought the pitch, leading the company’s $1.4 million first financing. And other investors find similar magic in the co-living model (although I’m not sure why). Common — another apartment developer with designs around designing communities — has raised $23.3 million in financing so far from investors, including 8VC, Maveron and Grand Central Tech.
Before both of these startups, there was Campus, which billed itself as a co-living company in the early days of the latest iteration of this particular living trend. The company launched, expanded and shuttered its doors in the span of a few years.
Our own former correspondent and longtime contributor, Kim Mai Cutler, took a turn in the co-living startup world when she worked at Roam Co-living, a multi-national twist on the concept that raised $3.4 million from investors, including the Collaborative Fund.
All of these fledgling startups pale in comparison to the true giants that are trying to muscle their way in to this “new” paradigm for urban (international) living.
WeWork, the $3.69 billion micro-office space real estate developer, is getting into the co-living game with WeLive, offering rooms for rent in Washington and New York, and the real estate owner, operator and developer Property Management Group, which launched PMGx to pitch to debt-laden, young, urban professionals.
Sylvia Plath rocked co-living spaces, too
Questions abound around all of these intentional communities and co-living spaces. How do they integrate with their communities? What are they doing to ensure fair rental and housing practices for minorities? What impact do these capitalized property owners and managers have on housing stores and the creation of real, lasting communities?
Lizzie Widdicomb, writing in The New Yorker roughly a year ago, laid out a beautiful history of the ever-changing conundrum that is living for the city. She writes:
As a new, mobile workforce flooded into cities, demanding more freedom, boarding houses were largely replaced by cheap hotels designed for long-term stays. [Paul Groth, a professor of urban geography at the University of California, Berkeley] said, “As late as 1930, maybe one housing unit in ten was some variation of a residential hotel.” The Barbizon, a women’s-only establishment at Lexington Avenue and Sixty-third Street, opened in 1927, when large numbers of women were beginning to work outside the home. To its guests, the Barbizon offered closet-size rooms and lavish shared facilities: a beauty parlor, a swimming pool, a sun deck, Turkish baths, a coffee shop, squash and badminton courts, a solarium, and a roof garden. To their parents, it offered the assurance of respectability: chaperones roamed the hallways, and men were not allowed above the first floor. Sylvia Plath, a resident in the nineteen-fifties, featured the Barbizon in “The Bell Jar,” where it appears as the Amazon, a hotel for rich young women who “were all going to posh secretarial schools.”
By the nineteen-sixties, hotel life had given way to the new dream: a place of one’s own. In the sitcom “That Girl,” which premièred in 1966, Marlo Thomas played an aspiring actress, Ann Marie, who moves to New York to try to make it while working a series of odd jobs: waitress, department-store elf. In the show’s second episode, a friendly doorman helps her move into her own apartment. Standing on the threshold, she announces, “I’m my own occupant!” Like Ann Marie, young women seized one-bedrooms near First and Second Avenues, which became known for singles bars and “stew zoos”—buildings packed with female flight attendants. The inaugural issue of Cosmopolitan called the neighborhood “The Girl Ghetto”: “Thousands upon thousands of single girls flock to the upper East Side, cramming themselves into small apartments, subsisting on an apple and a quart of diet soda a day, waiting for a telephone to ring and having a mad, wonderful time.”
Update Marlo Thomas’ careers to Instagram model, social influencer or … no… there are still department store elves… but you get the idea. That picture of the late-20th century isn’t really all that different from the beginning of the 21st.
As long as there have been cities, and single people who want to live in them, businesses will find new ways to cater to their whims and wants. The co-living phenomenon isn’t that much different than what came before it — except in its organization and its capitalization.
Still, Merchant believes in the dream… and its magic.
Writing about the company’s appeal, Merchant describes a living space and its notion of a shared community like this:
The real magic of HubHaus comes with the shared community that we have built. Members immediately gain access to 100’s of other people in the network, and are invited to a variety of member-only events. More importantly, they’re welcomed into their new “family” and bond with housemates over monthly dinners, mixers, and just day-to-day life. While many members move in for the low rent prices, most end up staying for the connections that they make.
And there are pressures to make co-living more attractive. The rent in most cities is too damn high, and, in many cases for young professionals, their incomes are probably too damn low. Beyond that, there’s something to be said for finding new ways to network and communicate in a world where everyone is LinkedIn, Facebook-friended, Instagram-followed and ephemerally Snapped. Real human connection can be hard to come by. Just ask these guys:
However, amid all the hubbub and hoo-hah around these new businesses springing up to cater to millennials who’re tired of suburban living and want to be in dense, community-minded geographies, a counter-narrative is emerging.
Younger folks may be embracing the suburbs with the same zeal that their parents (or grandparents?) did. Community and culture may be key for the experience generation, but I’m pretty sure that you can find those things any place where there’s… well… community and culture. So, while this flirtation with co-living may be an option for urbanites, it’s not one that’s particularly novel. Just a new melody for the same old chorus of moving, and living, in the world.