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.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST HOMES - Lia Grainger

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.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY Of ROOST

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.

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