"You live with eight people? Are you a flight attendant?"
I’ve become accustomed to fielding those types of questions—from friends, bewildered relatives, and dates—since I moved into a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn six months ago. Yes, I answer, I live with eight people. There’s a lot of space.
For the skeptics, of which there are many, I deliver a speech about my in-home laundry and extreme proximity to Prospect Park. How beautiful the house is, and how I would never otherwise afford to live in this neighborhood, where the median one-bedroom apartment, according to one estimate, rents for about $2,450 per month. For the optimists, who tend to be either bright-eyed startup founders or self-identified hippies, I admit that I like living with a community of housemates. I may even mention that two of them are recipients of PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s $100,000 grants for would-be college students, which means that they’re as young as 18.
In either case, as long as I can avoid it, I do not ever utter the word coliving, which is what I’m doing, or Campus, which is the company to which I pay my rent.
Founded by a former Thiel fellow in 2013, Campus is one of a growing number of coliving companies that includes startups like Krash, which has eight locations (some temporary) throughout Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and Pure House, which has five locations in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These companies typically take on large leases and sublease them to tenants (which turns out to be a tough business model—but more on that later). They facilitate events, provide shared items like toilet paper and living room furniture, and advertise a new community style of living that is (slightly) more affordable and more personally enriching than paying for solitary space.
Campus runs 30 communities in the Bay Area, the largest of which has 21 bedrooms, and has opened four more in New York within the last year. Coworking company WeWork also plans to launch a coliving brand called "WeLive" later this year. And Brad Hargreaves, a cofounder of 14-campus trade school General Assembly, told Fast Company he is partnering with real estate developers to launch a new coliving company called Common this fall. These companies see an opportunity to fulfill a growing need for flexible, affordable housing for young people in urban centers and to tap into the same community ethos that enabled the so-called sharing economy and coworking.
The commune, the kibbutz, the college dorm: Group living has been done before, but most of America considers it a quirk of the extremely young or extremely crunchy. And, as some of these startups are finding out, overhauling people’s attitudes around the literal foundation of how they live is a bit more involved than changing how they hail a cab. In San Francisco, the anti-eviction mapping project dubbed coliving companies as "digerati dorms," saying that "instead of embracing the communal spirit of the 1960s, it seems that [they] are run by owners and middleman companies that are often charging above market rates while pretending the hacker home is part of a collectivist ethos." New York magazine, when it heard about coliving, summed it up this way: "Greedy New York City landlords now renting out adult dorm rooms and calling it ‘communal living.’"
I stumbled upon this later description while devouring one of my roommate’s homemade chocolate croissants in my cavernous Brooklyn kitchen. The magazine had filed coliving in its Approval Matrix under "lowbrow" and "despicable."
Last December, when I decided that "coliving" sounded like a good idea, I was living alone for the first time in my life and at obvious risk of early-onset cat lady.
It wasn’t even my cat. I had separated from my husband in October and moved into my friend’s studio apartment. She had all but technically moved in with her boyfriend in another neighborhood, but the cat, Willow, had been left behind. I didn’t like Willow’s hair, which covered everything. Willow didn’t like me, which she announced frequently, loudly, and occasionally by pawing at my face while I slept.
Over time, though, "Willow" had become "Will." My wardrobe, which at this point consisted of three oversized sweaters that I rotated depending on the weather, was entirely covered in cat hair. And I had started bringing up not-even-my-cat in conversation. "Look at this one," I’d say, whipping out my iPhone camera roll, the new-age grandma’s version of a photo wallet insert. "Doesn’t she look high?" Even as I brought used boxes home from the office (so Willow could play with the tape, of course), part of me could see that this was probably not a healthy long-term living solution. Which must be the same part that thought "coliving" sounded appealing.
Campus, explained the Facebook post I had stumbled upon after hours of futile Craigslist searches, was in the process of launching its first three locations in New York City, and it needed tenants. "As a member of the Campus network," the website explained, "you’ll live in a shared house with great roommates, learning new things and building relationships with other open-minded people."
It was easy to see why group living makes sense on a practical level. Apartment prices in cities like New York and San Francisco are at record highs, and millennials, who at the beginning of their careers are the least likely to afford expensive rent, are living in urban areas at a higher rate than any other previous generation. In New York, renting an apartment involves a punishing gauntlet of brokers, fake listings, and daily turnover in which hopeful tenants must view listings in person, provide two years of tax returns, and typically make 40 times the rent, which for the average non-doorman studio apartment in Manhattan comes to about $100,000 per year.
This process is always impractical and expensive, but it is nearly impossible if you’re not already living in the city, aren’t sure how long you will stay, don’t yet make enough money to cover 40 times the rent, or, in my case, need to move fast. "If you can hit on the nexus of building the right community for a group of people who are currently underserved by real estate offerings," says Michael Milstein, a partner at Milstein Properties (and heir to one of New York City’s most powerful real estate dynasties), "that’s kind of the bull's-eye."
Bull's-eye or not, the idea of moving into something called Campus after living independently, being married, and owning a set of matching salad plates at first struck me as cringe-worthy.
Then I saw the house.
Even dark and empty, it was beautiful, with all the frivolities that mark age: unnecessarily heavy, unnecessarily tall doors; intricate carvings in the wood around them; and a total of seven non-working fireplaces. Annelie Chavez, Campus’s New York City community manager, pointed out a dishwasher, laundry machines, high ceilings, and a door that led to a porch and small patch of grass—all of which pass for luxuries in New York City real estate at my price range.
My friend’s lease would end in two weeks, and I needed to find a place to live fast. Campus didn’t require the broker's fee I would most likely pay to rent a normal apartment, and it rented rooms by the month. It was clearly time for me to find a new home for the cat. If that meant I had to live with people, then so be it.
In early January, I move into the brownstone. I choose a room on the fourth floor, with windows that look out into the courtyard and a fireplace that makes the place look less like a dorm room than it probably should. Rent for rooms in the house range from $1,000 per month (for a cubbie hole the size of a walk-in closet) to $1,900 per month (for an apartment-sized room with its own bathroom). Residents each pay 1/9th of the bill for commodities like Internet, electricity, gas, and a bi-monthly cleaning service and, included as part of their rent, a $150 fee to Campus. The fee covers the cost of shared items like pots and pans, furniture in the common space, toilet paper, and soap. It also covers the cost of support staff like Annelie and a facilities manager who coordinates repairs, changes light bulbs, and installs curtain rods in our bedrooms. In San Francisco, there are more frills, like hot tubs, guest rooms, and a shared vacation home in Napa.
For the first month or so, even though we’re each paying rent for only one room, three of us—me, a recent Princeton graduate who works at a landscape architecture firm, and a third roommate, also a Princeton grad, who recently returned from a job in Asia—have the entire four-story brownstone to ourselves.
It is hard to overstate how wonderful this is (thank you, Silicon Valley venture capital!) for me, although one can assume it isn't great for Campus's coffers. There are more bathrooms than people. Nobody lives with me on the fourth floor, which means I have both a private bathroom and a private washing machine. When the fridge is working, there’s enough room in it for everybody’s food. When it’s not, which happens twice, we use a second fridge on the ground floor, and Campus coordinates a repairman. I go days without running into a roommate.
Group living without the group, however, doesn’t last long.
Annelie has seemingly inexhaustible social energy and an impressive talent for both liking, and being liked by, nearly everyone. She applies these super powers to hosting bagel brunch open houses and setting up Skype dates between the growing pool of housemates and "potential members." Unlike most coliving companies, Campus allows residents of a space to choose their roommates. So before she "offers membership" to any applicants, she asks us if we think "they’re a fit."
I tell her I’d prefer older candidates. She tells me it’s illegal for a housing company to discriminate based on age, and slowly the house fills up. At the end of January, a 25-year-old former philosophy/psychology major, fresh out of coding boot camp, becomes my first roommate on the fourth floor. In February, a 30-year-old tech product manager who left most of his belongings in Singapore takes the biggest room, and a 34-year-old therapist takes the ground floor apartment. Around the same time, a pair of health startup founders—18-year-old and 20-year-old Thiel fellows—move into the other ground-floor room, and a 23-year-old recruiter at a social enterprise takes another 4th floor room. The last room, the hobbit hole next to mine, stays empty until April, when a third Thiel fellow moves in. None of us pay more rent to cover the open rooms—Campus covers it.
We are all relatively young. All college graduates. All invested in our work. Somebody jokes that we should call ourselves the "Yuppie Commune." It sticks.
Together my roommates and I pay Campus about $13,500 per month in rent and fees. According to a listing I find on StreetEasy, the rent that Campus pays on the building is $13,000 per month. Real estate brokerage Corcoran Group lists the lease at $12,000. Even without rooms sitting empty, the Yuppie Commune is still being subsidized by Silicon Valley venture capital.
Campus is not making much, if any, money on swank affordable housing alone (and, it's worth noting, these are still yuppie rent prices—"affordable" being a relative term).
One option for making coliving work as a business is to offer a premium catered living situation. "We create an experience that allows them to create harmony between their mind, their body, and spirit," says Ryan Fix, the founder of Pure House, which provides amenities like meditation classes and, if requested, meal plans, to its residents for an experience that costs between $1,500 and $2,100 per month. Krash, where rooms range from $1,600 (for a shared room) and $2,000, includes in its rent a full pantry, towel service, and events. "When you’re signing up for Krash, you’re signing up for more than just a housing experience," cofounder Phil Fremont-Smith says. "You’re signing up for, really, a particle accelerator for people." In the span of a 45-minute conversation, he compares the startup to TED, TechStars, Apple, and Hogwarts.
Another business strategy is to argue that being part of a network is worth more rent than you might pay if you were to find your own four-bedroom apartment. What separates renting a desk at the Regus, which you’ve been able to do since 1989, and coworking is the same thing that could separate finding some roommates on Craigslist and coliving. It’s that nebulous term, "community."
"It gets the person philosophically oriented to this idea that they’re part of a club," says Bryan Woo, the director of acquisitions at real estate developer Young, Woo & Associates, who has been exploring the idea of opening a coliving space on behalf of the company. "They’re part of a program that allows them much more than a living space."
Coliving companies typically sell "membership" to these communities rather than rooms. Pure House advertises "a community that lives, works and creates together; all while supporting one another's passions." Krash’s website promises aspiring members an opportunity to "immerse themselves in innovation" with "a hand-selected global membership of leaders." Campus simply offers "a network of communities."
Networks, like amenities, are more profitable at scale. But they can be profitable. After all, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, after years of running without any revenue, eventually invented a new type of advertising. Ties built and reinforced by physical rather than digital proximity are stronger and potentially more valuable. Once WeWork hit a certain scale with coworking, for instance, it began offering a membership that did not come with a desk—just access to its events and network—and selling services to its members. The company recently raised funding at a $5 billion valuation. In theory, people will continue to pay above market rent to belong to a community even if real estate prices drop, which is good news if you happen to be locked into a long-term lease. "Each of these companies, as I view it, is in a race to build enough scale so that this community will sustain them and generate other revenue by the time the real estate market hits a downturn," says Milstein.
One morning, I casually mention Game of Thrones as a handful of my housemates concoct various versions of caffeine in the kitchen.
"Have you read it?" one roommate asks me.
"No. I figured I saved days of my life by watching the show instead."
But HOW MANY days, the Princeton grad wonders out loud.
One of the Thiel fellows has already launched his smartphone calculator and is on the case. Assuming you read for eight hours a day, at a rate of one page per minute, it would take about nine days to read the entire series, he announces.
This is not an unusual conversation. While most coliving spaces explicitly target the young, transient crowd, Campus takes a shot at sustainable community. Instead of promising a "particle accelerator for people" it allows its members to choose each other, host their own events, and develop their own cultures. "There are certain serendipitous experiences that can only really happen in a shared environment," Currier told CMX in an interview. "There is a special level of intimacy in the community we are building."
In our case, we become a house of nerds. We watch Good Will Hunting together and talk about the math. A small group decides to set goals every week—things like practicing extemporaneous speaking or studying German phrases—and if everyone meets them, they go out for pie together. The landscape designer starts sending out an SAT-style vocab list before our weekly meetings with a challenge to squeeze words like "bibulous" and "chthonic" into stories, songs, or poems.
Some of my roommates build their social lives around the house, and some barely live there. Some feel to me like younger siblings, others like neighbors, others like friends. I am grateful that it does not feel like summer camp or miracle grow for innovation, both of which sound exhausting.
Meanwhile, as the Yuppie Commune takes shape, Campus is building similar communities in Gramercy Park, the Upper East Side, and on Madison Avenue. In an effort to follow through on Campus's "network of communities," Annelie tries to link them together. There are monthly events that gather people from all of the houses for dinner or drinks. Some of the houses hold potluck dinners. Campus would like us to be spending even more time together: Maybe we want to host a book reading or a small concert and invite our friends? Had we heard about a startup called Feastly that allows people to charge for cooking a shared meal? How would we feel about someone using our space to host one of those?
"Buzzz. DING. Buzzz. DING. Buzzzz." It's April, the empty room that is closest to mine has finally been filled, and the girl who moved in has set her alarm to 5 a.m. "Buzzzz. DING. Buzzz. DING."
Finally, it stops.
But only for ten minutes. "Buzzz. DING. Buzzz. DING." There’s a very thin fake wall that separates my room from her room. Where noise is concerned, though, it might as well not exist at all. Another ten minute break.
"Buzzz. DING. Buzzz. DING."
This is not her fault. This is not Campus’s fault. This is just the nature of group living. The problem is not that I don’t like my roommates. It’s that every time I leave my room to go to the bathroom, I have to make small talk. It’s waking up to someone else’s alarm, and then racing her to the shower so I can make it to work on time. It’s eating salad for dinner every night because, when four people are cooking four separate dinners at the same time, finding a free burner and a free mixing bowl and enough counter space to marinate something requires precise choreography.
One night, I walk into the kitchen to find the remnants of an elaborate cooking session. Every pan is dirty, and used kitchen tools are strewn on random surfaces like clothes after a striptease. When I open the fridge door to a precarious tower of duplicate egg cartons, milk jugs, and boxes of lettuce, careful not to topple it while I hunt for some yogurt to eat for dinner, it occurs to me that there are good reasons that most adults, when they can afford it, choose to live alone.
Unlike most of my roommates, I have lived in New York for five years and already have a full roster of activities that keeps me too busy to participate in most Campus events or even hang out at the house much. I already have more friends than I have time to see them, and I can find cheaper rent by teaming up with just a couple of roommates. Without December’s pressure to move on short notice, it’s harder for Campus’s community to compete with a lease.
In June, I begin plotting my escape.
It doesn’t take me long to find co-conspirators. Campus provides everything you need to avoid settling down: month-to-month rent, roommates, kitchen supplies. Even for someone who has no plans to leave (Campus says most of its tenants stay for more than a year), this is part of the appeal. "It’s so hard to know what my life is going to be like a year from now," Esha Gupta, a 27-year-old content director who lives in a San Francisco Campus house told me. "I wouldn’t be opposed to staying long term, but it’s so hard to make those kinds of decisions these days when jobs are all over the place and you could fall in love with someone in a different city. That’s the beauty of Campus: there is no commitment you have to make."
Naturally this appeal has attracted some people who aren’t looking at the startup as a long-term housing situation. Five out of nine people in the Brooklyn house plan to move out by July. The landscape designer is going to grad school. One of the Thiel fellows is moving on to a new project. The coding school graduate has found a job, and now that he knows he’s staying in New York, he wants to pay less rent, and the product manager has resigned himself to signing a lease in the U.S. and wants to be closer to work. Three of us team up to find our own place.
New York City real estate is no less terrible than when I last cruised Craigslist in December. During appointments made with little notice and at inconvenient times, my new roommates and I wander around apartments that are musty with water damage or have bedrooms that are too small to fit a bed. We refer to one of our options as "the coffin" and another as "the pot place." Finally, we find one that is quiet and removed from the street by a small courtyard. It’s no four-story brownstone, but all three bedrooms have windows and closets.
"What the hell," reads a message from the Brooklyn Campus house WhatsApp group on Thursday. "Check your email."
Currier, Campus’s CEO, has finally emailed me, but it is not a response to my several requests to comment for this article. "We very regretfully need to inform you that Campus Coliving will cease operations on August 31, 2015," it says. "Sadly—very sadly—despite continued attempts at working with current and alternative business models, we were unable to find a way to make Campus into an economically viable business."
Some people worry about moving their digital photos onto a new startup’s platform for fear that the startup might go out of business. My roommates and I have moved all of our worldly possessions and our lives into a physical beta version, and now it is crashing—even as similar products launch.
The race is still on to replace Craigslist roommates as the best option for transitory urban Millenials. WeWork just raised $355 million as it plans to launch its series of coliving spaces. Common plans to launch this fall, but with one important difference from Campus’s business model: It will team up with real estate developers to buy the buildings where it sets up coliving spaces, which means it does not need to pay a landlord.
While Campus, the business, was a failure, Campus, the living situation, was a success. Even though I’m ready to leave, throughout the last six months, as I emerged from my cat-lady stage, I shifted from begrudgingly accepting this support of living with people to almost savoring it. Even my roommate's early alarm on one day saved me from missing a flight.
"We’ve been driven by a desire to help build meaningful relationships and bring a little more love and belonging to the world," Currier wrote in his email announcement. "Amazingly, it does seem we reached that goal. " Love and belonging have never scaled well, however, and they’re not helped by a business model built around non-commitment and quick scale. If coliving stays even when Campus does not, what it offers might look less like a commune than it does a Hilton. "It’s the hotelification of living solution," Woo says. "It might be more overhead, but it’s not more complicated than running a hotel."