When the Singularity Arrives, Will We All Have Roommates?

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Photo: Nicholas Doyle - nsdoyle.com/Nicholas Doyle

This weekend, residents will begin moving into New York’s newest experiment in communal living: a blocky red-and-white building in Williamsburg, nestled snugly against the BQE. It’s run by the company Common, which sells “co-living,” a relatively new product that’s a start-up version of rental roommate shares. The Williamsburg building is Common’s third and the largest in the city; there are 51 bedrooms, priced between $2,250 and $3,190 for month-to-month rent. Some of those bedrooms look out on the freeway, but think of them as race-car beds for grown-ups. The glass is remarkably soundproof, and you can pull the blinds if you don’t want the motorists to see your junk.

After accepting applications for the last several months, Common reports that the Williamsburg building will open at 80 percent capacity. And now that the model has gained a foothold in New York, it’s worth thinking through what, exactly, co-living means. What constitutes the start-up world’s version of the ideal home? What might co-living show us about the ways tech is remaking our lives?

Common is not the only company to venture into co-living; and, while it announced $7.35 million in series-A funding last year, it’s not even the biggest. In a 2015 pitch to investors that won the company a $10 billion valuation, the co-working giant WeWork projected that co-living would account for 21 percent of its profit by 2018. The company’s valuation has since climbed to $16 billion, and members started moving into the first WeLive co-living space — 110 Wall Street, where 20 floors will eventually house 600 residents — in January.

With their furnished accommodations and short-term leases, these brands sell friendlier, spiffier, higher-profit-margin renditions of what might otherwise look a bit like extended-stay hotels (or the world’s fanciest SROs). Instead, they promise convenience, style, social connection. It’s a version of communal living that suggests tech utopia in its ultimate test case: with Nest thermometers, and Casper mattresses, and a house Slack channel, so you can see whether anyone else wants Seamless without having to yell down the hall. This particular utopian vision is, of course, unhampered by any squeamishness about money. Previous experiments in communal living had failed because “nobody was ever able to write the check,” WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann told Fast Company. “A capitalistic kibbutz is not a bad idea.”

Recently, Wayne Congar led a tour of Common’s first residence in New York, a brownstone on Pacific Street in Crown Heights. Congar is the co-founder and creative director of Mayday, a creative agency that helped design the space; his visitors came from Creative Mornings, “a breakfast lecture series for the creative community.”

The Pacific Street house was a failed condo project before Common arrived. Members began moving in last October, paying rents that started at $1800 for a furnished bedroom. (Average rent for a studio in the neighborhood is $1656, according to a recent report.) It’s right off Franklin Avenue, a site of rapid gentrification in recent years, and the bay windows that run up its façade look out on Pacific Street and the landmarked 23rd Regiment Armory, which currently serves as a homeless shelter.

The tour group had crowded into the living room of the parlor-floor apartment. Like a spread in the West Elm catalogue, or a nice Airbnb, it was neutrally well-appointed in a way that suggested access to Instagram and some money but nobody’s taste in particular: a vaguely mid-century sofa, a colorful throw, an assortment of hard-to-kill plants. In the living rooms of each of the building’s four suites were the same plants, the same throw, the same couch.

It’s really a user-experience-design issue,” Congar said, of the living room. “It’s where a lot of those UX design speculations about how people were going to use the spaces—none of them were more wrong than here.” For example, the large set of bookshelves along one wall — “this thing [the bookshelf] is a kind of user-experience idea” — was originally crowded with succulents, baskets, statues, knickknacks, and other “eclectic moments.” But it turns out that when people live in an apartment, they tend to fill shelves with their own (less photogenic) stuff: like, in this case, a UX Design Immersive course certificate. This discovery prompted laughter from the group.

Utopians have always dwelled at extremes — think of the Puritans, Shakers, or hippies on farms — but their goals and ideals say something about the larger world they inhabit, and the available fantasies of how it might be improved. In place of the communard’s passionate beliefs, co-living proposes an array of convenient amenities. The collective conviction in this case is that you shouldn’t have to call a super, commit to a lease, choose a couch. As a business proposition, rental real estate wouldn’t necessarily seem like it has much to do with tech; but as a mentality, co-living is pure Silicon Valley — it is life rendered frictionless. In this model, the everyday hassles involved in sharing an apartment (remembering to buy toilet paper, reminding your roommate to buy toilet paper instead) are not the minor responsibilities of adulthood but situations to be disrupted. The co-liver, freed from such obligations, can devote his or her time and energy to, say, designing user experiences for Seamless or Casper or Nest. Indeed, many of the current residents work in tech.

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Scrubbed of the hippie grime evoked by “co-op” and “commune,” co-living asks that participants come together not for lentils and chore wheels but for such generational favorites as karaoke and fitness classes. Co-living aligns itself with “co-working” — and if there is an implied ideology to be found here, it lies in the blurring that’s encouraged between work and home. The first WeLive sits atop seven floors of WeWork co-working space in the Financial District, and its interiors share WeWork’s brand of ambient morale-boosting: “Better Together” read posters throughout; custom wallpaper depicts synchronized swimmers. Brad Hargreaves, the founder of Common, previously co-founded General Assembly, the Flatiron coding academy (which once offered co-working spaces as well). Students’ struggles finding housing helped inspire his new venture, and General Assembly was one of the first places Common sought members.

As it is for start-up employees, togetherness is part of the package, and co-living also asks a willingness to blur public and private — a tendency the present era of technology already encourages. After all, if you’re always sharing your life in attractively designed apps, why not share it in an attractively designed apartment, too? Why would you ever want to be by yourself, and without the possibility of networking? The hope is for members to spend most of their time at home enjoying shared amenities and forging friendships. This means cultivating an atmosphere that might allow co-living to transcend the vast economy catering to 25-year-old men who don’t want to take care of themselves — to be something more than the Soylent of home.

We don’t want to become a hacker house, we don’t want to become a frat house,” Hargreaves told me. “It’s really important to have a diverse community in here, because we don’t want to get pigeonholed into one use case.” Common chooses its members through applications, interviews, and background checks. Hargreaves said that the gender balance so far skews only somewhat male, roughly 60-40 or 65-35; members range in age from 19 to 43. They tend to work in “tech, media, and creative.”

The first residents to move in at WeLive were a mix of employees, their friends, and WeWork members. They share a willingness to live even more of a fishbowl existence than a co-living situation might ordinarily entail. At a Sunday-night house dinner in April, a videographer roamed the communal dining room as residents enjoyed takeout and wine. The company’s founders regretted not having documented WeWork more thoroughly from the beginning, explained one resident community manager. They wanted to make sure WeLive was filmed from the very beginning. Another resident, a project architect, was roommates with a WeWork designer and herself currently applying for a job planning WeWork’s Mexico City location. “I don’t understand how I’m going to live a normal life after I leave here,” she said, contemplating the departure from co-living Eden.

The Common Pacific Street house has a communal dining room downstairs as its signature offering — on the tour, Congar called it “a place to swap ideas, concepts, working models.” (Another house might get a game room or a wellness area.) Along the walls hung posters bearing Common’s community values: These are expressed as imperatives, and include “Be Present,” “Open the Door,” “Keep Evolving,” “Lend a Hand,” “Stay Curious,” and “Love the Journey.” At a recent party, members took Polaroid selfies and taped them to the poster of the community value they liked best. “Keep Evolving” led the pack, with 17 members’ photos; “Lend a Hand” trailed, with six.

Many observers have described the product offered by Common and WeWork as “dorms for adults,” and it’s not hard to see why. But it would be a mistake to read this simply as meaning that they’re juvenile, or coddling (or, for that matter, expensive). Dorms are another place where life and work and public and private all converge in a few rooms filled with someone else’s furniture — a situation that’s either invigorating or nightmarish, depending on your temperament. Navigating these circumstances requires someone with the diligent friendliness of an R.A. to nudge everyone into getting along. In the Pacific Street basement, past the end of the big table, is a lounge area with couches and haphazardly placed rectangular beanbags the size of a bed for a golden retriever. These, Hargreaves said, were a late addition, specifically intended to cultivate an atmosphere of casual camaraderie. “When we opened, this space back here was immaculately laid out, everything was placed, and so nobody used it,” he explained.

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In the months since Common’s October launch, the company has strived to adapt to its members’ habits. Originally Common ran potluck dinners every Sunday, but no one really cooked, so it was mostly “Seamless potluck,” Hargreaves said. “They just did their own hackathon, which is never something we would have thought of,” he reported. “So we bought them some whiteboard paint. We try to support stuff they’re doing as opposed to do stuff on our own.”

The Williamsburg building offers some “couples” rooms with private baths. (“It’s one of the things we saw people wanted,” Hargreaves said. “And I don’t think having a shared bathroom is core to the community experience.”) It lacks the Nest thermostats featured in previous properties; each room now has an air-conditioner residents can control personally. And, in another move toward a more conventional rental arrangement, Common recently introduced the ability to commit to a 6-month or 12-month stay in exchange for a discount on rent. “We found that actually the majority of people took us up on that,” Hargreaves said.

I have not, I admit, ever really considered my home as a “user experience.” From the vantage point of a post-college arrival in New York, though, it’s not so hard to sympathize with the co-liver’s impulse. You’re in a new city, unmoored — where do you live? With whom do you hang out? And how do you get the Wi-Fi going? If you had the money to make someone else answer these questions for you, wouldn’t that be a relief?

In one of Common suite’s open-plan kitchen-living room, blue tape on the floor marked where a tiny bedroom would be carved out of the shared space. It was the same size as the smallest and cheapest bedrooms at the Pacific Street house, which were the ones that had rented the fastest. A second line of blue tape inside the first marked where, despite appearances, a bed would indeed fit.

This was one of the interesting discoveries,” Hargreaves said. “That people actually don’t care that much about the room’s size; they really care about the price and the location.”

The certainty that somewhere there’s someone willing to pay a lot of money to live in a closet — provided that the closet is near some coffee shops and the subway — seems less like a discovery than like a New York real-estate truism. But these calculations get more complicated with time. One WeWork communications executive told me that the company fully intends to welcome families at WeLive someday, which will mean finding a way to comfortably accommodate toddlers alongside work-hard-play-hard young adults. Surveying the current building, with its open-plan whiskey bar and white-sheepskin throw pillows, this seemed a long way off. If co-living succeeds in the long term, it may be less through innovation than old-fashionedness: The current tech boom is more precarious than New York’s housing scarcity. Still, others have tried and failed to make co-living pay. The company Campus ran houses in the Bay Area and New York before folding last year, reporting that they were unable to sustain “an economically viable business.”

Steven She, a 32-year-old data engineer, moved from Toronto to New York about eight months ago for a job at a startup; he works out of a WeWork in Lower Manhattan and lives at a Common house in Brooklyn. He said he liked the events and activities Common offered, although lately he’d been attending less frequently.

I’ve started dating this girl, and now the roommate situation does actually become a bit awkward,” he said. “I still really like that community aspect, but it’d be nice to have my own kitchen, on the weekends, to cook.”

Common’s setup was something he imagined making sense for him maybe for another year or so. I asked him about the new “couples rooms,” with their private bathrooms. He laughed. “That could very well be an option,” he said. But it would require convincing his girlfriend. “She’s probably not as open to the concept. Yet.”