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New York wants to help solve its housing crisis with coliving

In a new apartment complex planned for Harlem, some tenants will share a spacious kitchen and living room with as many as 19 roommates. The design is one in a pilot run by New York City that explores coliving as a solution for adding more affordable housing.

For the last few years, most coliving spaces have been targeted at renters who have more income—say, a twentysomething programmer in San Francisco who likes the idea of having a built-in community and paying less rent for an apartment with a luxury-grade kitchen cleaned by a management company. But cities also increasingly think that variations on the model could be useful for people who are struggling to afford rent and stay in a city at all.

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[Image: courtesy Common]

It’s a modern, and arguably more liveable, version of an SRO—the single-room occupancy buildings, typically with shared kitchens and bathrooms, that were once common in New York as a way to provide affordable housing but were “regulated out of existence,” says Leila Bozorg, deputy commissioner for neighborhood strategies at NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development. Between the 1950s and 2000s, nearly 1 million SRO units in the U.S. were converted, demolished, or otherwise disappeared, often leading to homelessness when the former occupants had no place to go. The SRO units that remain are often in poor condition.

[Image: courtesy Common]

As the Department of Housing Preservation & Development thought about that history, and the current housing crisis, it saw an opportunity to revisit the idea and the recent growth of coliving. “We do have some unique challenges in our affordability crisis that we think this model can help address,” says Bozorg. “One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is the shortage of small apartments in the city. We know that two-thirds of the city’s households consist of one or two people. But only 45% of the housing stock is studios and one bedrooms. And so there’s that mismatch really in what exists and what’s needed.” Because of the limited number of small apartments, couples and single people who can afford larger spaces sometimes rent those instead, shrinking the number of rentals available for larger families.

In a program called ShareNYC, the city asked coliving companies to share their experiences developing and managing shared spaces. It also invited teams to propose specific projects, choosing three in October to move forward. One 10-story building in Harlem will have furnished, home-like shared units and on-site support for homeless LGBTQ youth who have been living in the shelter system. Another in East New York in Brooklyn, managed by the coliving company PadSplit, will rehabilitate an existing SRO building—keeping existing low-income tenants in place—adding a better layout, including spacious common areas. A third, larger project in Harlem, from L+M Development Partners and the coliving company Common, will offer 253 housing opportunities within 56 shared housing units in two eight-story buildings, at rents ranging from very-low-income to market-rate.

[Image: courtesy Common]

“We’ve always thought about coliving in the context of affordability, although only recently have we been doing projects that have really a formal affordable component to them or are affordable in their entirety,” says Brad Hargreaves, founder and CEO of Common. In one of the company’s market-rate buildings, in Brooklyn, a room rents for $1,400, less than an average studio, with furniture, Wi-Fi, utilities, and housecleaning including. In Harlem, the most affordable units will rent for $800 (the average rent in Harlem is $2,747; a studio might start at $1,500). One of the layouts in the complex will be typical of coliving, with three- to five-bedroom suites sharing a living room and kitchen. Another layout will be more unusual, with 19 bedrooms per floor sharing a large living area in the middle of the floor.

[Image: courtesy Common]

The designs make it possible to reduce construction costs, helping address the fact that affordable housing is often too expensive for developers to actually build. The city will be carefully studying costs as the projects finish financing and begin construction. “We’re really curious to know whether this is a way of providing affordable housing at a savings,” says Bozorg. “There are fewer kitchens and bathrooms, in theory, that need to be built in these buildings, and costs get spread across units. We’re hoping to see significant cost savings.” The city will also be studying the management practices at the buildings, and how well the quality of the buildings appeals to tenants of all kinds. “SROs of the past did end up being stigmatized because of who needed them,” she says. “And I think going forward, that’s something we really want to ensure doesn’t happen.”

Other cities are similarly interested in coliving. In San Jose, where rents have risen steeply, the city recently changed its municipal code to allow coliving developments in its downtown. In New Orleans, Common is working with the city’s industrial development board to build a new development targeting restaurant workers and others in the downtown area who have been priced out of living near their jobs. In Atlanta, the company is working with the city to build another development with housing that is affordable for people making 80% of the area median income. “You’re starting to see more cities look at it,” says Hargreaves.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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