Is Co-living About Affordability or Gentrification?

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

New Orleans        Talking on Wade’s World on KABF  with Michael Robinson Cohen about his Yale School of Architecture studio project to design a hundred thousand affordable housing units for San Francisco, or any other city that understands the problem and the potential, led us naturally to co-living.  Michael and his gang believe there is tremendous promise in co-living for the emerging young precariat, drawn into the “gig” economy to a portfolio of jobs in tech and elsewhere that combine good prospects with speculative wages and a boom-and-bust income instability.  For these emerging young architects smaller spaces with increased common space holding both the necessities of kitchen, laundry, and even work spaces along with amenities to wash it all down more easily, points towards a potential solution on affordability that those of us working in the midst of a desperate shortage of affordable houses for low-and-moderate income working people also find attractive.

            Sadly, there currently seems to be more slips between the cup and the lip as the promise of this idea confronts the reality of developers who seem determined to warp co-living schemes into an upgrade in price and performance of college residential houses in the high-priced, red-hot real estate markets in New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and the like.  In post-Katrina New Orleans,  there had been a number of interesting proposals for affordable “worker housing” to help get the necessary labor into the city at affordable prices when rents had doubled in the wake of the storm.  None were built, though some smaller unit style developments for artists, largely white unfortunately, with section 8 certificates did emerge in several places. 

            Reading about co-living schemes in New York City and the Bay Area, developers seem to be rejecting affordability in favor of charging premium rents and reshaping co-living almost as connection clubs.  The New York Times talks about “hacker houses” like the ones touted in movies about Facebook.  In New York co-living seems also like staying in the Yale or Harvard Club, except on a longer timeline with interviews by the owners and potential house or suite-mates and probably the kind of blackballing still common in the fraternity scene.  As one of these smaller developers says, “…you can get a bedroom in New York for less than $2500.”  You can buy a mansion in many cities around the country if you’re willing to pay $2500 per month!

            A hipper and hungrier developer called Stage 3 Properties wants to build a co-living operation with 180 units to house 400 people and describes its mission as “passionately disrupting the housing industry by reimagining its process, product and price points and curating an all-inclusive cosmopolitan living experience designed for today’s creative class.”  I can guarantee that anytime you have the words, “reimagining,” “curating,” “cosmopolitan,” and “creative class” in the same sentence you better hold your wallet and purses with both hands because you are being shaken down for every penny while walking in knee high cow manure. 

            These rent-a-room hustles also are likely to have some problems with existing landlord tenant laws and single-room-occupancy rules in San Francisco and New York City for sure.  In the age of Uber though a lot of the hustlers think that rules to protect consumers or tenants are just rocks in the road on their way to riches, and therefore easily ignored.

           Co-living in practical and affordable housing could offer huge potential, but our friends and allies among planners and architects need to run, not walk, to beat the developers away from get-rich-schemes for themselves where desperate tenants and workers are overpaying and left again on the short end.

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