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Cities that need more housing could get it by rethinking what an apartment can be

Common Roosevelt—a winner of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—is building housing where several units share kitchens and common spaces.

Cities that need more housing could get it by rethinking what an apartment can be
[Image: courtesy Common]

Affordable housing is notoriously expensive to build: In California, for example, a single subsidized apartment costs around $450,000 per unit (in San Francisco, one project designed for low-rent housing has a per-unit cost of $900,000.) While there are multiple ways to bring costs down, one part of the solution may involve rethinking what housing should look like, including designing buildings that offer different living arrangements than just self-contained units.

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In New York City, a new building that will soon begin construction in Harlem is one example of the trend. Called Common Roosevelt, from the coliving company Common in partnership with L+M Development Partners, the 253-bedroom building is the winner of the spaces, places, and cities category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards. The apartments in the building are designed to share common areas, such as living rooms and kitchens (but not bathrooms), including an unusual layout in one section with 19 bedrooms on a floor sharing one large living area.

[Image: courtesy Common]

“We know there’s a housing crisis, and at the heart of that, we’re looking at a misalignment between supply and demand,” says Jenn Chang, creative director of architecture at Common. “There’s a global urbanizing trend, people moving to cities for opportunities in all urban areas, and most cities are supply-constrained for one reason or another. What coliving allows us to do is to present a different option of housing type, and this option is much denser. From an architectural perspective, that’s interesting because high density can be controlled and can be designed, and it allows the developer to bring on a higher quantity of housing units on the same site.”

[Image: courtesy Common]

Sharing an apartment with strangers to save money on rent obviously isn’t a new idea, but most apartments weren’t designed for that purpose and don’t do it well. While “single room occupancy” or SRO buildings were once common in cities as a way to provide affordable housing, cities essentially abandoned the idea in the middle of the 20th century. “Both cities and states started to introduce layers of regulation that often conflicted with each other because they frankly just didn’t know what to do with it,” Chang says. “It’s become this tangled, confused definition that no one knows how to navigate or touch. So now it’s basically impossible to build an SRO.”

Common, which got its start creating upscale coliving apartments that appeal to young tech workers, is now helping convince cities that coliving also makes sense for affordable housing broadly. “When it comes to changing minds, a lot of what we do is proving that the shared living model is not scary,” she says. “It’s not different, and there is a demand. We have to tell the story over and over again, to lenders, to developers, and to cities, so that it becomes more embraced as a housing typology.” The new development in Harlem “allows us to reopen that conversation.” Cities are actively pursuing the idea now: In New York City, Common Roosevelt is one of three projects that will be developed as part of ShareNYC, a program that invited developers to submit coliving projects as a solution for adding new affordable housing.

[Image: courtesy Common]

Common’s design uses a concept that Chang calls “layered intimacy,” intended to carefully balance the need for privacy with solutions for making shared spaces as livable as possible—including plans for cleaning schedules and other aspects that go beyond the physical design. Compared to a traditional apartment building design, coliving makes it possible to include more affordable housing. The same project in Harlem, with a traditional design, would have included 20% affordable housing, with the less expensive apartments on the ground floor, where views are less valuable. The new design distributes affordable housing throughout the building, and it increases the affordability distribution to two-thirds of the building. The lowest-cost apartments will rent for $800 a month, in a neighborhood where a typical studio might start at $1,500.

A report from New York University’s Furman Center calculated similar benefits for cohousing in general in the city. For a building without land costs, they found, a small studio would have to rent for $1,480 for a developer to be profitable, but a coliving unit with a shared kitchen and bathroom could rent for $840, an affordable cost for someone making around $33,000 a year.

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Common is also working on affordable coliving spaces in Boston, Atlanta, and New Orleans and expects to see the concept grow. “I think the math is pretty compelling: higher density, more units, lower rents,” Chang says. “I don’t really see why this wouldn’t be an idea that’s embraced.”

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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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