Coliving on the rise: can house-sharing make cities great again?

Coliving is still an emerging concept, but the idea behind is not. Up until the early 20th Century, it was a common phenomenon in big Western cities and was, of course, the norm for extended families. In cities suffering from ever more crowded accommodation and where people live in ever greater isolation, can house-sharing become (again) the new normal?

Following from his intervention at the OuiShare Fest 2017, Jonathan Imme, founder of The Arrivers, shared his insights about coliving and how it can help cities become more inclusive, diverse and connected.

Do you think this new type of residential arrangement can help cities with high renting prices or might coliving become a driving force attracting talent to emerging, smaller cities?

Jonathan Imme: There will be an emergence of different types of coliving spaces, primarily in urban areas. In parallel to this, I think there will be an increasing number of either self-governed communities or spaces handled by third parties in suburban areas that people have been hesitant to move out to.

Will the rise of coliving spaces save cities or just increase gentrification, drive up housing prices and create bubbles for upper-middle-class white kids? Well, it remains to be seen.

So far we see both things happening to some degree. We can consider coliving spaces that increase diversity in neighbourhoods, offers more affordable options and actually create communities. On the other hand, just as with coworking, we are seeing real estate companies appropriate that term to market micro apartments as coliving spaces just because they have a shared common room with a pool table and an open bar. This, unfortunately, is something we’re going to see happening more and more and is why we need to lobby for the term ‘coliving’ not to be captured by companies with a pure for-profit interest.

We need to have more discussions with real-estate developers, city policymakers and with users to figure out how can we design coliving spaces so that they promote better cities, more collaboration between neighbours and that foster diversity by design.

Right now we can only get a glimpse of how coliving is having a positive impact in cities. But it is worth considering that it can help senior citizens in need of daily support, students on tight budgets, and families with limited resources, which form a pretty solid base.

What is the biggest challenge posed by urban regulation in setting up coliving spaces?

J.I: I think the biggest problem is not city regulations but finding suitable real estate companies and land. Cities are dense and it is not easy to find free space. Furthermore, most of the existing apartment stock is not designed for coliving communities, so a lot of refurbishment is needed. The next question is price, which would depend on the area and the specific coliving model. For example, key details like length of tenancy or activity spaces could pull the project into a commercial area and not just residential. In general, it would help if those processes were speeded up, and to have clearer frameworks as to what type of model of coliving is envisaged.

Jonathan discussing coliving at the OuiShare Fest

The problem so far is that in large cities especially, most properties are sold to the highest bidder. So we need to push for cities to start considering the positive effects that coliving and cohousing can bring. It shouldn’t be about the money but regarded as projects that move the city forward, truly promote diversity and foster stronger social links.

What type of policies should cities implement to facilitate this ‘new’ type of living spaces?

J.I: In the last few decades, the number of people per flat in Western cities has been declining every single year, while the number of homes available also keeps decreasing. This basically means there is less space available for newcomers. In Berlin, approximately 50,000 new people moved into the city and 13,000 refugees still live in emergency shelters; and yet the city only built 10,000 new flats. The math doesn’t add up.

Our policies need to incentivise real estate developers to create housing concepts and frameworks that foster more people sharing spaces, for instance where not everyone has their own guest room that only gets used twice a month. So if cities make it more attractive for real-estate owners to develop coliving and cohousing concepts it could really be a game changer.

People also need to become more familiar with the concept. The belief that coliving is like university accommodation or just a flat-share is partially true because there is only one kitchen and probably not everyone has their own bathroom. It is of course more than that.  There is, additionally, still a great need for designs that cater for privacy and community. We need to explore and experiment with more ways of sharing and design houses where we do not just live in separated capsules and maybe meet our neighbours once a year.

What is the biggest risk of rapid growth in coliving projects if left unregulated? What impact could it have on the real-estate market?

J.I: Unfortunately I don’t think we can get a copyright on the term ‘coliving’ and sue real estate agents trying to exploit the concept. I think we need to live with that ambiguity. For some people, coliving will be just a group of wealthy kids from abroad getting together to have an easier lifestyle without the responsibilities of a home such as buying furniture or services contracts. It is really up to us to highlight the potential benefits of true co-living. We are moving into a world where people increasingly change environments as they have more mobility. It doesn’t make sense, in terms of sustainability, for people to buy new things every time they move. Maybe in 10-15 years we will look back at our current lifestyle and find it ridiculous.

There are also going to be differences in the type of coliving models we’re going to see in dense cities as opposed to those in suburban or rural areas. My intuition is that in cities we’ll see more designs that cater to an increased flexibility, where you have furniture, services and insurance all set up and you basically just move in and just take care of the social factor. In the countryside, it will probably be conceived as a longer-term solution, so people will want to have a say in what space looks like and demand more ownership.

The terms coliving and co-housing haven’t been so sharply defined and separated. The way I understand it, coliving refers to a third-party that sets up space and decides who moves in. Co-housing is a group of people that own and live in the same space and take care of everything.

I think it is going to be exciting to figure out what does the co in coliving really stands for. Is it communal, is it collaborative, is it commercial?

Purehouse Lab, another big player on the coliving landscape present at the OuiShare Fest.

Coliving includes a third-party, is it always for profit?

J.I: It’s a tricky questionWhat I want to prove with The Arrivers is that there is a middle ground. It is possible to develop and build a model where people who invest time in the project –from interior design, setting up utility contracts, to organising community activities– is remunerated. This is not a model where you feel that this third party is making money out of your situation. Targeting newcomers that don’t understand the local system and need a quick fix is where we are probably going to see companies trying to make lots of money. This is something we need to have a conversation about and create alternatives to the purely commercially-focused operators so that you have a choice.

Beyond the house-sharing experience, how does coliving contribute to creating more inclusive cities? How do we go from creating a mini-community in a house, to then take it to the neighbourhood and then to the city?

J.I: The most lucrative approach for a coliving developer is to attract people willing to pay extra for the convenience of having all the services and utilities resolved. If you focus only on these people, it’s easy to make a healthy business. However, it becomes more challenging when you try to create a model that works also for the city.

We cannot leave just to the city to decide and redistribute resources. The entrepreneurial and business sectors need to contribute with designs that are affordable for more people than just wealthy expats. How do we use this ‘extra money’ to cross-finance people who are currently being pushed out of the city? We need to explore and develop models that create comfortable solutions for everyone involved, and this is the journey we are in.

Coliving spaces haven’t been so successful in contributing to neighbourhoods yet. The challenge is to go beyond the superficial monthly community event to actually get involved in the area. This has to happen even before construction begins. We need to get a feel for who is out there, how we can we be useful to them, and how our space can be made available to the local district. Understanding the needs of the community is essential to providing real solutions, from a coworking area to local art exhibitions. Beyond the actual space, it is also necessary to help residents become useful to the local community.

For us, the question was: if we want to make arriving in a new city less difficult, how can we make at least part of that promise accessible to refugees? They are also newcomers and often come with much more energy to integrate and spend more time learning the local language because they feel they have to pay something back. So how do we build connections between the expats coming in and the refugees?

Coliving is more than finding a really cool, trendy, and well-designed place to live. It is also about creating communities and improving neighbourhoods.

What would be your advice to other coliving space creators?

J.I: More than advice, I have a wish-list for the future of coliving. At this stage, I don’t see them as competitors but as promoters of collaborative living. We need to join forces to convince City Councils and real estate developers that coliving is the future. It is both financially interesting and makes the city more connected, increasing diversity and helping cross-finance people who can’t afford to live in cities anymore. I want to make this a collaborative effort, and I want to do my best in sharing everything that we learn, especially how we build and foster good relations with the city councils and policymakers, so I’d love to see other coliving operators joining this mission.

I think in five years the term coliving will become more mainstream and inevitably will gain some bad reputation. Some people are going to be part of the problem and others part of the solution. I think part of the solution is to trigger this conversation. We need to make them conscious about what type of coliving operator they want, between one that is genuine community focus rather than just profitable. They need to be aware that their choice influences the future of their city. We need to make sure that in the near future coliving doesn’t become a despised term, we need to prove that living together is not only possible but makes cities better.