Co-living has long been a feature of city migration. In 1830s Boston, MA as much as 50% of the population lived in boarding houses, sharing washing and dining facilities with their fellow residents. Boarding was also popular with tourists in British seaside towns and students at university, but those past residents would barely recognise today’s swanky co-living developments with their luxurious shared spaces including gyms, cinema rooms, bars and even party venues. A new report by American property firm Cushman & Wakefield suggests that although numbers are still fairly low, with major companies running just over 3,000 beds in the US, demand is exceeding supply. Co-living in the US will triple in the next few years and it’s a statistic that’s likely to be repeated across the rest of the world. So who’s (co-)living in these new developments and what’s driving the trend?

It’s not surprising that co-living is taking off in densely populated cities that offer excellent career opportunities but have the drawback of high property prices: San Francisco, LA, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne. With buying property beyond their reach, a growing number of millennials and Gen Zedders are – for the moment – shelving the idea and seeking the maximum for their money: a high quality living experience amongst like-minded people. After all, why rent a dingy flat from a landlord who’s always impossible to get hold of when the boiler stops working, when for the same price you can stay in the equivalent of a luxury hotel room with a ready-made community you can tap in to whenever you want?

Co-living is convenient for today’s adventurous souls who may want to move from city to city or country to country and are comfortable with the sharing economy.  They also offer a kind of transition for those in their 20s who enjoyed the community feel of student accommodation but want a higher standard of living without the piles of washing-up. As facilities are shared it’s potentially a more environmentally responsible choice and it’s a pratical choice for those not yet ready to settle down and/or have children.

So, what’s on offer? New York based Common, now the largest co-living operator in the US, speaks to its audience in the language of start-ups and tech companies, talking of their ‘methodology’ and using feedback loops and data in its design approach. It’s easy to see the appeal of taking up residency at Common or somewhere like it when you see comments from residents such as Reino in Brooklyn, who says ‘"If you look at all the stresses involved in uprooting your life and moving to a new country, moving into Common was completely stress-free. Not only that, the chance to instantly meet new, friendly, like-minded people that make you feel part of a community, made a huge difference." Co-living clearly has big advantages for people moving to a new city who arrive knowing no-one.

Closer to home The Collective’s London Canary Wharf development offers apartments in the same ballpark pricewise as other serviced apartments in the area. The building offers 24/7 concierge, gym membership, laundry facilities, co-working spaces and a cultural events programme, pool, bar, music venue and cinema. An in-house team curates a daily programme of events, from nutrition classes to mental-health workshops, and efforts are also made to work with the local community, for instance inviting local schools in to use the swimming pool. Meanwhile, Uncle in Manchester offers ‘a kinder, simpler rental experience’ with yoga and art studios as well as a gym and co-working space.

While large co-living developments are not surprisingly in major cities, smaller units are also popping up in Instagram-friendly corners of the globe. Outsite cater for digital nomads who would just as rather work off their laptop in Bali or Costa Rica as in Lisbon or Austin, Texas – especially if it means they can surf in their downtime. They emphasise ‘solid’ wi fi and desks or dedicated workspaces. Perhaps not surprisingly for these smaller living situations they vet prospective residents thoroughly, looking for people who want ‘a lifestyle rooted in community, growth and empowerment’ as well as fitting the standard criteria in terms of financial checks and so on.

It’s interesting that research carried out by Ikea revealed that people were most interested in living in shared houses of between just 4 and 10 people. Smaller sites may offer more meaningful interactions with fellow residents and feel less like a hotel, but economies of scale mean large developments and skyscrapers with hundreds of units are likely to still offer the majority of co-living. Ikea also found that people were particularly interested in furnishing their own private spaces, with the host company taking care of shared areas. Ikea may have framed the question to get an answer that suits them of course, but it’s still a finding that future developers should take on board, especially if they want people to stay long-term. Most co-living rooms are fully decorated, without much scope for adding more than the odd picture or throw.

Another new development is digital platform Kndrd, offering co-living management software for property owners and building portfolio managers to help them transform their existing properties into co-living spaces. Co-founder Christine McDannell calls co-living ‘the leading answer to our global urban housing crisis’ and says it’s time that housing became “as automated, flexible and on-demand as Uber…”housing as a service”.’ A 2019 survey carried out by Kndrd revealed that the average minimum co-living stay is 58 days but that there’s room for improvement with co-living websites, with the need for better options to promote facilities and shared digital platforms.

Will co-living become a more long-term solution, with residents staying for decades rather than weeks or months? It’s notable that while co-living attracts young singles and couples, most developments aren’t suitable for children; many don’t even allow pets. And while having often a fairly small amount of private space is acceptable for those in their 20s, older people tend to want more, and also to have their things around them, rather than living somewhere with no scope to put their own personal stamp on their space.

Co-housing might suit families and older people better. Longer-term co-housing developments, with (often) family-sized units designed around communal kitchens and gardens, began in Copenhagen in 1970 and are gradually springing up in the UK and US.  These tend to be founded, not by large property companies but by small groups of people with help from local housing associations and authorities. Award-winning Springhill Cohousing in Stroud was the UK’s first new build co-housing scheme with residents moving in in 2003. Founder David Michael bought the land and set up the project, working with an architect and basing designs on those described in two books about co-housing. Springhill’s 35 homes range from 5-bedroom houses to 1-bedroom flats in a car-free environment where residents have the option to enjoy communal dinners and also share a treehouse and a chicken run. Another development in London was set up by the Older Women’s Housing Co-operative (OWHC). 17 owner-occupied flats and eight for social renters have female residents ranging in age from 50s to late 80s, who while not in any way acting as carers for each other in the professional sense of the word, ‘look out for each other’ as neighbours. These are much more long-term solutions to housing need. However, it remains to be seen whether the major co-living companies will move into this kind of housing, or whether potentially lower profits and more specific requirements for small groups of people will means it’s always something small-scale and self-determined.

Co-living is a great solution for a certain type of person, someone who hasn’t yet put down roots and is looking for ultimate convenience in their living arrangements as well as access to high-end facilities and a readymade social life. It may not be for everyone, but with more units opening up every month and more companies moving into the scene, co-living is surely a trend that is here to stay.

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