In cities such as San Francisco or New York, the cost of securing an apartment is one thing; proving you can pay it is another. Prospective tenants require solid credit ratings and an income more than 40 times the monthly rent. It’s also a psychological endurance test – for some, there’s a kind of isolation specific to living in a city teeming with millions of people. “Loneliness,” the writer Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City, “is personal and it is also political”, a social malady that is also a structural response. When I moved to San Francisco, I met many people who felt this way: surrounded by faces, stimulated by activity, yet cast adrift.
At first glance, co-living (or “intentional communities”, as they are sometimes known) seems like Silicon Valley spin for what many would term share-house living, but it’s typically on a larger scale and comes with a dash of the commune. Contribution to the community is a defining, sometimes chartered, factor. It has been touted as a solution for the problems of housing unaffordability and that urban loneliness, both of which can, at least in part, be attributed to the rise of the tech sector. Such a movement is unambiguously directed at millennials. Some in Silicon Valley are betting on the phenomenon’s potential for profit. The company WeWork, which owns co-living project WeLive, is a certified decacorn – start-ups valued at more than $10 billion – worth $US16 billion.
The cost of co-living varies wildly. On the lower end at $US1100 a month is The Farmhouse, a 16-bedroom Victorian mansion in Berkeley owned by co-living start-up Open Door. Its amenities include an in-built meditation room and a kale garden. Its household is said to comprise “herbalists, app developers, yoga teachers, boat engineers, writers, environmental activists, entrepreneurs, students, teachers and food people”. Future housemates are asked to send in a video or written application to be considered for tenancy. It’s the type of place where one can opt out of cooking duties in favour of being the “house pickler”. “Feel like planting passionflower along the fence instead of cleaning a bathroom? That works, too,” the website says. I wonder if there’s a chore wheel.
A utopia of a different kind appears to thrive at Minna, a 12-bedroom warehouse in the heart of San Francisco’s tech-centric SoMa district, managed by the start-up Common. The company operates eight homes across San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC. Aesthetically speaking, Minna’s the sort of place one might earnestly save on an “aspirational” board on Pinterest – a far cry from the average share-house lucky dip of found objects, IKEA flat packs and Gumtree hand-me-downs. The floorboards are polished, the mattresses are from voguish start-up Casper, its furnishings are from chic West Elm. Sophie Wilkinson, Common’s head of construction and design, says the aim is to make the home feel “comfortable, well-wearing, not too industrial”. Room cleaning, wi-fi, the regular purchase of toilet paper and delivery of coffee is included in the rental price, all of which is a deliberate strategy by Common to minimise potential sources of conflict between housemates. They could be considered potential flaws in communal living’s “user experience”.
A corporate flavour pervades the larger co-living spaces managed by Common and its competitors such as WeLive which, according to The New Yorker, owns skyscrapers on the east coast with a slicker “Wall Street” vibe. I was struck by how shared living areas resembled co-working spaces, a logically extreme conclusion to the notion that work and life are inextricably bound. At these co-living properties, the concept of community feels like a centrally planned, top-down enterprise. Members are invited to in-house events such as potluck dinners, wellness events and book clubs, and are “encouraged to engage with one another through Slack channels”. On its website, Common’s values consist of koans seemingly ripped from The Secret: “Be Present”, “Love the Journey”, “Stay Curious”, “Keep Evolving”. This self-actualisation will set you back $US2600 a month.
It’s a model that in some respects seems a world away from the organised anarchy at Langton Labs, a co-living household spread over two warehouses also in SoMa, San Francisco, founded by then grad students at the University of California San Francisco six years ago. I stayed there for a week earlier this year, attended a lecture on queer gentrification and public spaces, and imbibed at their homemade tiki bar. The decor is part share house, part science laboratory, which is unsurprising given many housemates work in biotech and biophysics.
“There’s a big difference between a community that votes and brings in new community members, rather than a space where there’s a person or an entity in charge of it but is renting out individual spaces or rooms,” Megan Klimen, a long-time Langton Labs resident, says. To her, the value of living among many like-minded individuals is intangible. She co-founded a biological imaging start-up called 3Scan in the house garage, and many of her colleagues either currently live or have lived at the labs at some point. She describes the culture at Langton Labs as “a filter for people who are drawn to having a space where they can do big things” – things like book readings, parties for 300-plus people, creating artwork for Burning Man. “When I first moved into Langton Labs, it was well above market value,” Klimen says. She was paying more rent than her friends who rented one or two-bedroom apartments in the gentrifying Mission District. Residents at Langton sign a commercial lease, which Klimen says gives them a sense of ownership of the space. “It feels very different to be in space where you’re like, ‘I don’t know about this room, why don’t we tear down that wall?’ ”
In some ways, the shared values and politics of those who live at Langton Labs is a microcosm of San Francisco’s oft-caricatured political utopianism. “There’s a fair range of the libertarian or anarchisty, hackery side to the very socialisty side,” Klimen says. “You don’t have any conservative Christians but you do have a solid range.” Anarchy prevailed in early incarnations of the household, when the demographics skewed younger and male. As residents have aged and coupled up, sensibilities have shifted: there’s less chaos and more communal bread-baking. When I stayed at Langton Labs, I met only a handful of its 16 residents, most of whom were in their early 30s. The house was clean, fridge items were labelled, the nights were quiet. It was all very civilised. The alchemy of any co-living community, of course, depends on the people who contribute to it. Getting lucky is a blessing, but there’s a real risk of getting saddled with a dud.
The rise of investment-backed co-living has been viewed as a response to widespread calls for greater housing options and ways for young workers to find their tribe. But salvation may prove elusive. For one thing, the appeal of large-scale co-living enterprises may be limited: their exclusivity, as defined by their high rental prices, is what makes them desirable. Business models may also pose concerns. One of the largest co-living initiatives, Campus Coliving, shuttered its 30 properties in San Francisco and New York after it became clear that the start-up was no longer economically viable. Some places also feel like an imitation of shared living. If you strip out the challenges – trivial or otherwise – of negotiating a shared space with others, it’s perhaps little more than a glorified dorm, a novelty bound to wear thin. The longevity of a co-living project hinges on whether its inhabitants view it as a way of life, or as an opt-in lifestyle.
In San Francisco, where social stratification is at its most accelerated, such endeavours are met with wariness. What kind of communities are being created? When does a community become a clique? Gentrification is an atomising force, and its effects have already displaced those who are most vulnerable. Silicon Valley solutionism alone can’t fix structural problems in the housing market, nor can it quell investor speculation.
It’s also worth remembering that while technological innovation is progress, such progress isn’t always linear. When I read that WeLive had been billed as a “disruptive alternative to the way people live”, I assumed it was parody. Perhaps it’s just honesty: the urge for disruption, after all, is fuelled by a fear of being left behind. Faced with sky-high rents, us mere mortals feel this even more acutely. There’s nothing lonelier than realising one’s obsolescence.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Living large". Subscribe here.