A Eulogy for Co-Living, the Tech World's Awkward Suburban Dream

A Eulogy for Co-Living, the Tech World's Awkward Suburban Dream

Illustration: Vicky Leta

Last spring, a serial entrepreneur named Jane Dingh announced the first property that would become Haven Villages, a network of members-only compounds in desirable locations across the globe. Pitched as something between a modern commune and an exclusive social club, the company advertised its services as the “anti-lease,” a place where residents could enjoy the connections of a community without the commitment of a fixed address. “Being bound to one location with the outdated lease is out,” the founders wrote. “Being free to live and explore on your own terms, with your tribe, is in.”

Vetted members, having completed a trial period, would pay the company an undisclosed sum of money in exchange for access to eight sprawling properties in locations telegraphing affluence and seclusion—for instance, Bali or California’s Mendocino Coast—with ”countless new friends included.” For investors, the company compared itself to an exurb. For potential members, it framed itself as a contained community of pandemic-safe pods where the creative class could “shelter any place,” enjoying communal meals by the pool before retiring to their own cabanas or suites.

Last March, as the pandemic shrunk many Americans’ social universes to the size of a few rooms and almost a third of the country was unable to pay its rent, Ding’s business appeared alongside other “escape communities” promising a parallel universe to people who agreed to be screened and could pay. As The Information reported around the time, these included Harbor, a “virus-free retreat” the organizer hoped would double as a tech incubator and $5,000-a-month mansion for “entrepreneurs, creators,” and “influencers.” Even in the grim likelihood that the wealthy would rush to abandon their neighbors for a spot in the pandemic bunker, there was money to be made and splash pages to design.

These coronavirus retreats represented a particularly pointed variant of the dozens of co-living startups that have tried to position themselves as communal living experiments, retooled to appeal to people born between 1981 and 1994. More accurately, they’re a collection of tech-inflected property management companies that have been branded as solutions to a series of financial and existential ills. As recently as a few years ago, they were said to be “curing millennial ennui.” In marketing materials, they presented themselves as the inevitable evolution of the co-op’s collective ownership model or the commune’s stifling political cohesion, promising entrance into a robust fraternity of hustlers and new pals as soon as a new resident unlocked the door of their room with an app. In reality, they’re mostly small rooms in buildings with events managers and aggressive advertising teams.

And the suggestion that they would reimagine how upwardly mobile young people live in every urban center in America has turned out to be something of an overstatement. The New York company the Atlantic claimed could cure millennial loneliness let go of most of its properties in 2016. The $11 million raised by HubHause, a San Francisco co-living startup, ended with a dramatic implosion that stranded residents in three cities. Roam, a nomadic membership-based network of complexes founded in 2015 and covered at length by The New York Times Magazine and the Economist, shuttered sometime in the last year. It wasn’t just covid, the founders wrote. The business model, which founder Bruno Haid once touted as a cure for stasis and isolation in the digital world—a modern remaking of the neighborhood—simply wasn’t feasible. He’s pivoting to a more traditional real-estate business instead.

And Haven, too, after its short run, appears to be transforming its model or running out of options. On its website, the company only displays two of its properties, both said to be available to “approved trial members.” A bit of googling reveals they are actually event spaces most often used for destination weddings, both of which have been listed as available for some time—unused vacation properties, advertised under a different name. It’s a staggeringly cynical business model even within an industry that’s famous for rebranding the middle man as a series of cute portmanteaus. At some point in the last month, Haven’s application website was shut off.

It’s worth asking how it was possible for such businesses to attract investment and press out of what, in Haven’s case, appears to be a completely absurd idea: Acting as a facilitator between a nomadic group of strangers and luxury ranches listed on AirBnB, under the auspices of changing how families are organized in the home. Some of it, of course, is the enforced arrogance of venture-funded businesses, which are encouraged to provide not actual services but civilization-shattering ideas. But Roam and Haven are also the logical extremity of this particular housing trend, which purports to be borrowing from various other historical antecedents and has been most successful in creating a series of private little boxes within broader, self-contained social universes: A planned community that would resemble gated home-owners’ associations, except none of the residents own even a share of the communal kitchen or pool.

The so-called co-living “movement,” incubated among tech workers and harnessed by real estate companies bent on squeezing every last dollar out of the housing crisis, has deployed an array of arguments for its continued existence. It has been alleged at various points to be curing loneliness or offering more realistic housing options or giving a transient generation of young, childless workers what they want. But in the end, it mostly replicated an older real estate wager: That people with the means will seek out living arrangements where they can be in proximity to people who share their ambitions and class positions. Close, but certainly not too close.

The architects of these businesses might have framed them in opposition to the suburbs, but there’s something quite suburban about selling a rarified community based on safety and separateness from the outside world. They created something that most resembles a suburb of renters, on the smallest possible scale, and sold it as a novel idea.


The homogenous suburbs that ate into the agrarian landscape after World War II were, by and large, manufactured by enterprising people who wanted to sell a dream of limited community to an upwardly mobile middle class—a set of values and an identification along with a home. For all the mental gymnastics employed by the co-living startups in an attempt to conform their business proposal to something more subversive, that’s basically what they’re selling too, albeit in a way that accommodates a generation with little hope of owning their own homes. Where once ownership was considered the aspirational benchmark for a coveted demographic of spenders, the industry has been surprisingly successful in convincing young white-collar workers impermanence represents freedom these days. When Haven pitched itself to investors as an exurb, it was probably more honest than a lot of the stuff that comes out of real estate’s latest manufactured trend.

The business of getting young, upwardly mobile people into corporately planned communities was most robust in the United States around 2015, when Roam was founded and businesses like Brooklyn’s Pure House managed 25 spaces where residents filled out an application listing their passions in order to join a “highly curated community of like-minded individuals.” The previous summer, another co-living startup, Common Space, raised over $7 million based on its property in Syracuse, New York, to convert three buildings in Crown Heights into a series of “neighborhoods in a building.” On the West Coast, there was Star City and Tripalink and Bungalow, which as of last year had received a combined $114.3 million to reimagine rentals as community experiences.

Co-living’s basic concession is that people who live in expensive cities might pay a little more for a smaller apartment as long as it comes with shared offices and someone in-house to fill up a social calendar with workshops and exercise classes. (This is, not accidentally, said to be more profitable for building owners than renting out more traditional apartments.) The startups might have varied sizes of their apartments or breadth of their amenities, but they all purported to be transforming housing by offering the people who in another era might have fled to the suburbs what they wanted: West Elm-furnished apartments, Instagrammable common spaces, the promise of refuge from the world outside its walls, and a built-in community of people more or less like them. In one instance, the person whose job it was to run events and squash conflict’s official title was, somewhat darkly, “social engineer.” Most of the larger companies offer membership to a “social club” that is, of course, compatible with a chat app.

Over the last eight years or so, as co-living startups began to buy or lease property with the intention of offering apartments packaged with “curated communities,” the model has been most often compared to single-room occupancy units, transient spaces historically occupied by low-income people who rent a cheap room with a shared bathroom. The people who manage them, to varying degrees, invoke collective housing experiments of earlier decades, suggesting the ideals of collectively owned intentional communities might be better received as modern apartments managed by a corporation rather than residents themselves. And in some cases, as with Collective, a global real estate company that recently announced a $150 million development in Brooklyn, the guarantee of fellowship without commitment is a large part of the appeal—the company has been successful in part because it offers stays by the night. Which isn’t to say it’s actually appealing to populations for whom transience and impermanence are anything but a choice. “Cozy” micro-apartments there list in London for nearly $2,000 a month. And anyway, it’s not like the marketing pitch makes any sense in aggregate, as real estate firms have tried to merge the specter of affordable housing with a very Silicon Valley idea of what a community can be. What’s really being sold is marginally more affordable exclusivity, a branded way to live.

In just a few years, hastened by a pandemic that made a recluse out of everyone, a share of the industry collapsed: Pure House closed and Quarters, another co-living company, went bankrupt following a $300 million expansion into the United States. Ollie, a network of properties offering sound bath workshops and weekend excursions for residents, was swallowed by Star City. And for the most part, the co-living companies that are left resemble traditional real estate management firms with some rather coded language about luxury and community built in.

X. Co, which manages high-rises in six cities across the country for the “constantly curious,” lists a number of central “values” including “go big and go home” and “use data to structure and communicate your ideas.” Common aligns itself with the benefits of the sharing economy. Ollie offers sushi-making workshops and cheese tastings. Collective houses an incubator. What’s being offered isn’t so much a community as a lifestyle, and one specifically built for the types of well-compensated entrepreneurial spirits who thought co-working would be better if it encompassed the entirety of life.

A previous version of this story falsely linked the real estate brand Common to a building in Syracuse. That property is managed by Common Space, a separate co-living startup.

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

DISCUSSION

bettertohaveburntandburntthantoneverhaveburntbefore
BetterToHaveBurntAndBurntThanToNeverHaveBurntBefore

Not sure I’m seeing the suburb parallels. What they’re pitching is clearly the communal feeling of college dorm life for older people without the racial, economic, cultural diversity that most colleges provide.