Can Co-Living Survive in a Socially Distanced Future?

Can Co-Living Survive in a Socially Distanced Future?

By Anna Dorothea Ker
Over the past decade, soaring rents and urban loneliness have been driving people to live closer together. Then the pandemic hit, and sharing was no longer caring.

There’s hardly a more enduring question than asking, how can humans harmoniously live together? Since the Industrial Revolution, togetherness has been overshadowed by the primacy of private home ownership in the West. More recently, however, several factors—post-recession economic hardship, increased migration to cities, housing shortages, and rent crises—have accelerated the need for alternatives. A 2019 Washington Post report reveals that American millennials only own 4% of real estate by value—32% less than boomers did at similar ages. Often by necessity, sometimes by choice, more of us are sharing rented spaces with others.

The Many Facets of Sharing Space 

The sharing of our homes takes many forms. On one hand, we have the venture capital–funded, made-for-millennials micro-apartments with shared living areas that have popped up in the world’s metropolises, catering to the unattached, jet-setting digital nomad generation with plenty of all-inclusive perks. On the other hand are small cooperative projects that are collaboratively designed, built, and funded by private groups of individuals. Each member has a fully contained home, but shares amenities, resources, and company with the group. The modern form of this phenomenon, often referred to as "co-housing" or "co-living," originated in Denmark in the 1960s, and has remained popular across western Europe. 

Co-living has been on an exponential trajectory in the last several years. Between 2017-2019, Google searches of the term ‘co-living’ increased by a whopping 555%. In early 2020, 34.8% of tenants in the United Kingdom resided in a co-living arrangement. Then, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed. Cities were evacuated; jobs and incomes lost. Our homes became de facto bunkers. Common spaces became claustrophobic; shared surfaces dangerous. 

As potential virus carriers, we became threats to one another. Yet physical restrictions have taken a toll on our mental wellbeing. A sense of connection to our loved ones has never felt more important or needed. So how have co-living arrangements fared in this precarious year? And just how future-proof are they? 

Catering to the Long Term: Common

On the rooftop of a Common space.

As COVID-19 began to explode throughout the United States, co-living provider Common, which offers various co-living arrangements in 10 cities, leapt into action in support of its 3,000 members. "The first things we did were operational." says Jenn Chang, creative director at Common, and head of Common Studio. That meant stocking up on toilet paper and other shared resources to "preemptively alleviate any conflicts that roommates might have." 

A Common bedroom.

In response to the pandemic’s economic effects, Common enabled members to reclaim security deposits and make flexible payments. The issue of hygiene and safety in common areas was paramount. "A lot of people asked, ‘Are you going to ensure members can sit six feet apart at the dining table? Will you provide home offices in every apartment?’" Chang says. "The thing is, we can’t just design for now. We can’t solve all the problems in front of us through our walls and our windows—things that are built to last for centuries." 

View of a shared living space at Common.

One of the initiatives reflecting Common’s plans for the new normal is a call for proposals for its new Remote Work Hub, launched to explore the question: If people don't need to go to a fixed place for their jobs, what does housing look like? "The idea is to pilot a live-work development that hasn't had the opportunity to exist before." Chang sees her role as a driver for overdue change that the pandemic will only accelerate. "The current housing market is really antiquated. It takes a lot of advocacy on our end to build up excitement and create new forms of housing."

Designing for Greater Flexibility: Studio Weave

A render of an upcoming Studio Weave co-living project.

Across the Atlantic in London, architect Je Ahn, director of Studio Weave, shares Chang’s opinion on the need for new forms of housing. "We are very much about broadening the offer, allowing people to freely choose how to shape their lives," Ahn says. Studio Weave is currently undertaking several co-housing projects, and in 2018, together with the Royal Institute of British Architects, published the report Living Closer: The Many Faces of Co-Housing

The interior of an upcoming Studio Weave co-living project.

Ahn believes we need a shift in mindset, that co-living is "much broader than the demise of your own property," he says. "We’ve always longed to live closer with our neighbors, friends, and families. COVID-19 has made it much clearer what the social bubble means." 

'Living Closer' by Studio Weave and RIBA.

Emphasizing the importance of social wellbeing to mental health, Ahn sees the central co-living question as: "How do we want to interact with others?" For the past several decades, the western ideal of home has meant having one’s own plot of land, which provides freedom, flexibility, stability, and control over resources. Ahn believes the first step towards offering alternative inroads to these values consists of "expanding the flexibility of the apartment typology," from a legal and resource management perspective, to afford people a sense of ownership and control over a living space they might not own, while still feeling like part of a community.

Destigmatizing Shared Senior Housing: New Ground

Social distancing is simple at New Ground thanks to expansive gardens.

One of the successful case studies of this set-up shared in Studio Weave’s report is New Ground, a co-housing community for women over 50 in northern London. Initiated by the Older Women’s Housing Collective, a group of women passionate about destigmatizing senior communal housing, New Ground comprises 25 self-contained apartments and shared spaces. Jude Tisdall, a semi-retired arts consultant, secured the last apartment after hearing about the project on the radio. She quickly involved herself in committee life; from finances to services, decisions are made by 80% consensus. 

The New Ground buildings in North London.

When the pandemic hit, New Ground’s common areas shut down. Meetings switched to Zoom, and groceries were delivered weekly. "We've been privileged because we have outside space, and we support each other," says Tisdall.

Crisis-Proof Community Building: Spreefeld, Berlin

Shared outdoor and indoor spaces offer residents of Spreefeld plenty of spaces for coming together or retreating in.

The benefits of a support network transcend merely being of old age. In Berlin, where "alternative" housing has proliferated, Spreefeld stands out as a successful inner-city cooperative. Set over three medium-density tower blocks, 64 apartments cater to diverse living situations. 25% is dedicated to ‘cluster’ units—communal living for four to 22 people—and 15% is communal space, including shared terraces and gardens. Spreefeld resident Michael LaFond felt grateful for the setup during the COVID-19 lockdown. "It was a safe place where life could continue relatively normally, because we were considered as one household," he explains.

A glimpse into communal life at Berlin's Spreefeld.

When asked for his take on the replicability of Spreefeld in other cities around the world, LaFond points to the high economic barriers. "Any adaptations have to look closely at the local housing market, traditions, and experiences," including "social dynamics, ownership structures, and decision-making processes," he says.

Despite these challenges, LaFond believes that the question isn’t so much whether cohousing can survive the pandemic. Rather, it’s how we can better facilitate the kinds of communities that will allow us to overcome challenges present and future. "As we go into this time of crisis, it’s the projects with a strong community base that will have an increasingly significant role to play. We need to think much more seriously about the kinds of neighborhoods and houses that can help us survive—perhaps even thrive—in the face of crisis." 

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