You’re moving to New York City. There’s the stress of finding an apartment, the stress of furnishing it, and the stress of paying for both. But once you’re finally settled, the next big question is: Who are you going to hang out with?
The coliving company Common is trying to meet both of these needs at once by offering well-designed, fully furnished rooms in shared houses where the community is led by a so-called “house leader,” whose role is to help everyone make friends. House leaders are like RAs for adults–but they’re not there to police underage drinking. Instead, they’re inviting you to the party, and helping you make friends while you’re there.
Common has identified a serious problem for adults who move to big cities like New York; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco, where it has coliving houses: It’s really, really hard to make friends when you move to a new city. Not only that, but adults no longer have access to educational institutions, where they likely made the bulk of their friends in the first place, which means it’s hard to make new friends even when you haven’t recently moved to a new city.
“People don’t realize they’re happy when they have large supporting friend groups that they hang out with consistently. But you don’t move with all your friends. You move by yourself,” says Bryan Bumgardner, a marketing analyst by day and a house leader at Common’s Albany House in Crown Heights by night. “The best way to do that is to drop into a pre-made social system that wants you to be there. What happens as a result is you meet the craziest people and make the craziest most unexpected friendships that actually stick and last.”
Bumgardner lives at the Albany House, the second coliving space that Common opened, which can host a total of 11 residents. He was one of the first three residents to move into the space in January 2016, right when the house opened. Bumgardner says he decided to try out coliving because he was only in New York for a 12-week program, needed to find a place to stay in less than a month, and didn’t know how long he would want to be in the city. At the time, Common was offering flexible leasing options, though now residents generally sign a more standard lease for a year. He became a house leader at Albany because he was already naturally taking on the role of organizing events–and the relatively new company asked if he would be interested in making it official. “It was more of a formalization of something I was doing naturally,” he says. “That’s why I’m still doing it after a year.”
Bumgardner, who insists that he’s not the adult equivalent of a college RA because he’s not there to enforce rules, nevertheless acts exactly like the RAs I had as a freshman in college. As one of Albany’s house leaders, he’s often the first point of contact when new people move into the house. And he’s quick to set the rules of the community he’s helped create. He gives me the same spiel he gives to newbies:
“This is not some hippie-ass commune where people run around naked. Common’s also not your hotel. This is a house that you live in, that you pay to stay in, and you can choose to not take advantage of that, but really why choose to live at Common if you just want to stay in your room and not interact with anyone? You’re paying for this network of people.”
Then, of course, there’s the matter of the shared spaces, which as anyone who has had a roommate knows, can make or break any living situation. Each Common house–which is typically divided into several suites that have two to five bedrooms, one or two bathrooms, a living area, and a fully stocked kitchenette, as well as general house-wide living spaces–has a cleaning crew that comes to clean common areas, kitchens, and bathrooms, which the company keeps stocked with toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and cooking basics like salt, pepper, and olive oil. While residents don’t have to worry about running out of toilet paper, there’s always the danger someone will make a mess.
This contributes to Bumgardner’s house rules. “Because of the proximity–we all share common spaces–we have to have very open lines of communication,” he says. “If you have a problem with somebody or something, you’re expected to speak up about it. You have to have a level of respect to hear them and understand them. That’s how we live together. You don’t want to sit in your room and stew about your roommate who’s doing something annoying. If you want to do that, take your money and move to some studio apartment somewhere.”
Bumgardner arranges events like Game of Thrones viewing parties, backyard barbecues, weekly Sunday brunches, and even a “miracle berry” party, where residents tried a special kind of berry that makes food taste different. Albany also hosts artists who come by to show their work, and the group goes out to concerts and bars together. They’re even arranging a house trip to South Africa for November.
It sounds luxurious, and indeed, living at one of Common’s houses isn’t cheap. But having access to so much space is rare in New York, especially at this kind of price range. A room at Albany in Crown Heights, where Bumgardner lives, costs $1,340 a month. At Havemeyer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, rooms start at $2,050. Rooms at one of the recently opened Common houses, Baltic in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, range from $2,500 (if you’re willing to share a bathroom) to $3,250 (for a completely private one-bedroom with a kitchen). But at Common, a built-in social network is more than a perk.
“Making friends and talking to new people should be extremely high on a person’s list of life priorities because that’s how we grow and learn and have fun. Common makes it so easy,” he says. “Number one, you live with them. You’ve got organized social events where you can eat and drink for free with all those same people, and you’ll see familiar faces. You don’t have to jump on the C for 45 minutes to see your friend. All you have to do is come down stairs to hang out.”
This is all by design, according to Sophie Wilkinson, Common’s head of design and construction. She has overseen the building and design of a total of nine Common houses, six in Brooklyn (including two recently opened houses), one in Washington, D.C., and two in San Francisco.
Wilkinson has deliberately designed Common’s common spaces to cultivate a sense of community. She was inspired by Dunbar’s number–the idea that people can only have 150 or less meaningful relationships in their lives. So the setup of each house, with small groups living in clustered rooms and then larger groups under the watchful guidance of a house leader, keeps this idea in mind–that there’s a sweet spot in terms of how many people you can meaningfully connect with in a physical space.
“We break these communities down into less intimidating levels so more organic relationships can foster,” Wilkinson says. “The way I engage in the communities is mirrored in the way we’ve tried to structure the physical space.” She lives in Common’s Havemeyer house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her husband, and she likens the setup of Havemeyer to the natural social circles in her life. There’s her “suite”–including her husband and one other person–who make up her inner circle. Then, her “house”–a set of apartments under one house leader–the people she would order dumplings with on a Friday night. Lastly, there’s the entire 56-person Common residence, whom she’d invite to a documentary screening she wants to host in the house’s movie theater.
One thing that makes her job easier is that everyone at Common has opted-in to the community. “It’s quite remarkable how much anxiety that removes from socializing,” she says. “So I’m not going to be nervous inviting someone for coffee if they’re at Common because I know they chose to be at Common. I know they’re here to meet people and be connected with their neighbors. So I don’t have any anxiety tied up in, are they going to think I’m weird?”
The design of each house is meant to remove some of these natural human barriers–like feeling weird and awkward if you’re the first one at an event, or if you don’t know anyone at a party. The first step is putting community spaces near the entry of a house. “Having the community spaces right at the front, right at the entry, somewhere that people are walking past is a huge, well, I don’t want to use the word lubricator,” she says. That means that when someone comes home from work, they can see if anyone else is hanging out in a common area and make the decision to come say hi or hang out.
Another key element of designing non-awkward spaces is giving people a reason to be there. Wilkinson says that Havemeyer’s cinema, which is filled with Fat Boy beanbag chairs and sheepskin throws, is great for that, as is the kitchen. “You can be like, oh, I’m just going to get a water. I’m allowed to be here. I’m not awkward.”
To avoid the first-person-at-the-party syndrome, Wilkinson tries to design rooms so that they feel comfortable whether you’re the only one there or if you’re one of 20. Havemeyer has a coworking space in its basement that fulfills this requirement. Though you have to walk through the basement to get there (and there are cheesy aphorisms like “Embrace adventure” and “Live the dream” painted on the floor to highlight the path to the space), the room itself is divided into distinct areas. There’s the large sofa for lounging, a hefty wooden table surrounded by Eames bucket chairs (or rip-offs of them) for working, and a separate seating area focused around a record player for listening to music, complete with a stack of vinyl records and a shag rug. One chalkboard wall is covered in doodles and inside jokes.
“If you get down there and you are the only one, it’s not like, oh, I better leave because I feel weird because I’m the only one,” Wilkinson says. “It’s like, just be there because it’s a beautiful, comfortable space.”
The house leaders are an integral part of her design strategy as well. The spaces do their part to help you feel like you’re welcome, and the house leaders are their human counterpart. “They’re just the person who, in a party, would introduce you to the three people that you would get along with,” she says.
Still, one of Common’s core offerings is convenience, which can often run counter to community. The company allows members to move to any available room in another Common house within 24 hours. And in cities like New York, there’s a lot of turnover, regardless of where you live. Bumgardner says that’s one of the core challenges he’s faced as a house leader. When new people arrive and older residents leave, the community itself changes completely.
“There’s a couple weeks where people are trying to figure each other out. It’s like the first week you move into the dorm when you know your roommate but don’t really know them,” he says. “That’s when we really lean on our house leaders.”
For Havemeyer house leader Char Lacsina, friends moving to other houses isn’t as much of a problem. “I Slack them all the time,” she says, referring to the inter-Common Slack group that all members have access to. “Even [if your friends] move to other Common spaces, you still have the ability to communicate with them and hang out with them, even though it’s not a physical space.”
For Lacsina, who has lived in New York for six years and watched all the friends she had when she first moved to the city leave, Common has been a way to make new friends. “What do you do when your core friends leave after six or so years, and you’re still here–which is a large problem for a lot of young professionals,” she says. “I think of Common as another opportunity for me to re-transition and rebuild my community after friends have left.”
Of course, coliving isn’t for everyone. From my own experience in similar situations, you’re not always lucky enough to get a group of people that you gel with. You could find yourself living with a group of adults that remain strangers. Meanwhile, coliving has been criticized for the way it affects neighborhoods. While Common preaches a new model of actually knowing your neighbors, some of the company’s coliving houses are located in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods where former residents are being pushed out. While Common’s focus is on inter-house social networks, the company points out that its members also take part in volunteering and other community-focused activities. Still, the emphasis is to engage with the people who live in your building–so, perhaps unsurprisingly, there seems to be less focus on the neighbors outside your house.
Common’s approach to helping adults build social communities is a novel “feature” for its users. Lacsina even describes Common’s product as “life.”
“Some people say this is the solution to the housing crisis,” Bumgardner says. “I say this is the solution to the loneliness crisis.”