To share or not to share?
When COVID hit, It looked like CO-LIVING Was Dead In the Water. NOW It seems the appeal Of Community COULD trump the fear Of transmission.
Over the past few years, co-living has crept its way into the urban mainstream. Aimed at making the roommate experience more palatable, startups in the field match like-minded residents and set them up in furnished and professionally managed shared homes. It’s an easy sell to young professionals in cities like Toronto with skyrocketing housing prices, where living alone affordably would otherwise mean a basement apartment or a tiny studio in the sky. Sharing common spaces with a few carefully selected roomies is an easy way to have a bigger, nicer place. But does that logic hold in the midst of a global pandemic?
It’s a question Anil Khera has spent a lot of time turning over. Khera is the founder of Node, one of the bigger players in the international co-living game. Node owns and manages 16 properties in the U.S. and U.K., and by early 2022 will open its first building in Canada, a purpose-built project in Kitchener that will house 42 people in apartments with rents ranging from $1,000 to $1,600. They’re also hoping to add more than 1,000 beds in Toronto in similarly styled developments over the next three years.
“The issue now is you might feel your life is at risk if you’re sharing your laundry room or kitchen with too many people,” Khera says. Node’s current inventory of suites ranges between one and four bedrooms. Going forward, though, Khera’s plan is to focus on smaller units with fewer roommates, and to increase the number of private suites in their buildings — in that case, the co-living would happen in shared communal spaces like lounges and co-working spaces.
“Some of the models we’ve seen in the U.S., like hacker-style houses with dozens of residents, these are getting thrown out, in my opinion,” Khera says.
At the Toronto co-living startup Roost, co-founder Maggie Shi is taking a cautious approach, using technology to give renters a low-contact experience, particularly while they’re house hunting and moving in.
Like most co-living outfits, Roost — which uses a proprietary software to match roommates based on personality and lifestyle preferences — offers virtual tours, full floor plans and contactless move-ins. Shi says the fact that everything is furnished and basics like dish soap and toilet paper are supplied means getting set up doesn’t require any trips to the store. Another perk: professional cleaning services are included in the rent.
The first weeks of COVID-19 took their toll, Shi says, but the company is starting to see a return to the ubiquitous “new normal.” Part of that entails far more people working full-time from home, something Shi says Roost is pivoting to accommodate.
“Is there a desk? Is there a place to make phone calls without disturbing others? These things have become essential,” she says.
“It’s the combination of design and service that smooths the potential areas of conflict that can arise with roommates,” says Jake Chai. He’s the director of international real estate at Common, another U.S. co-living outfit poised to make inroads in Canada. Common currently houses some 3,000 tenants across eight U.S. cities, and is partnering with the real estate developer Dream Unlimited Corp to manage a 24-storey building in Ottawa that will include 175 co-living beds and 131 traditional units, slated for completion in 2023.
Is there a desk? Is there a place to make phone calls without disturbing others? these things have become essential. — roost co-founder Maggie shi
Chai believes stylish, well-serviced rentals have become an even bigger selling point during COVID-19.
“Before the pandemic, the young urban professional might spend most of their time out of the house, either at the office or socializing in the evenings,” he says.
“Now, people really need a home they can feel great about.”
But if having a bigger, nicer home means sharing, is it worth it during a global pandemic?
“For 30 seconds at the beginning of the pandemic, we thought, ‘Co-living doesn’t make sense anymore,’ but it was only 30 seconds,” says Joanne Lam.
She’s an architect and cofounder of Picnic design Inc. In January, the firm presented an installation at the Toronto Interior design Show that asked visitors to consider what parts of the home they would consider sharing in a co-living situation (the most popular answers: the backyard, the home office and the rec room — but not the bathroom). While most Toronto co-living businesses focus on rental models targeting relatively transient young professionals, Lam has a broader vision of co-living that includes families, seniors and co-ownership.
As Lam sees it, the pandemic has brought the importance of community to the forefront.
“We’ve all seen or heard about the isolation of people who live alone and the toll it takes mentally and emotionally,” Lam says. “If more of us were in co-living situations, it would make each household more resilient.”
Arnab dastidar agrees. A recent immigrant from India, dastidar graduated from york university’s Schulich School of Business in 2019 but struggled to find housing in Toronto’s pricey downtown housing market. He and fellow grad Gaurav Madani recognized a gap in the market for newcomer apartment-hunters like themselves, and in August 2019 launched Soulrooms to fill the need. Today they have 120 beds in five co-living hubs across the GTA.
“Our customer base is mostly made up of younger new arrivals who may move every few years and want to create a network fast,” says dastidar.
Soulrooms experienced an inevitable slump at the beginning of the pandemic as global travel and work relocations ground to a halt. Their plan to expand to 250 beds by the end of 2020 has been pushed back a few months, but dastidar says that reservations for move-in dates are increasing, particularly in August and September.
Soulrooms now accommodates international arrivals by providing special quarantine houses where new residents spend 14 days in isolation before moving in with their roommates.
Like Lam, dastidar believes that COVID-19 has actually made the idea of sharing a home more appealing.
“Before the pandemic, our big selling points were property and location,” says dastidar. “Now we’re more focused on the human interaction side. It’s something people value more than ever.”
Roost uses a proprietary software to match roommates based on personality and lifestyle preferences, and offers virtual tours, full floor plans and contactless move-ins.
Stylish, well-serviced rentals have become an even bigger selling point during COVID-19, Jake Chai says.