When Cassidy Claire Risien, 34, first toured Haven, a co-living space whose Instagram features images of attractive, hard-bodied Los Angelenos surfing, doing beachside yoga, and having rooftop vegan meals, she was immediately drawn to it. Not only was into the amenities, such as a meditation and yoga studio, home theater, and coworking space, but she also loved the sense of creative collaboration that the space, a “purpose-driven wellness community” located on a multi-million dollar property, proffered.
“I come from a theater and improv background so I’m used to playing and creating with others,” Risien says. “For me that’s what life’s richness is all about: sharing and communing.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and public health officials started urging people to self-quarantine and maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This has posed significant obstacles to daily living for Haven’s dozens of residents, who share communal spaces and sleep not in private bedrooms, but what residents refer to as “pods,” essentially birch-enclosed bunk beds.
“We’re all touching surfaces all the time,” Risien says. “We do what we can to maintain distance, but we can’t stay 6 feet apart. We don’t even sleep that far apart.”
Haven is just one of many co-living startups across the country, a term that refers to tenants in an apartment, house, or building sharing communal spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms, or other amenities. The trend ostensibly arose from the high cost of living in major urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, though rents can be comparable to more traditional spaces (a studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn, leased by the co-living space Common, for instance, starts at $2,150, about on par with the average cost of a traditional studio in the area).
As the sector has accrued hundreds of millions of dollars from investors and companies like WeLive, Common, Ollie, and Quarters have started expanding to multiple locations across the country, communal living has increasingly looked attractive to cash-strapped millennials — and in this respect, COVID-19 could not possibly have come at a worse time. With its touted values of collaboration and community, co-living is, in some respects, fundamentally antithetical to the tenets of social distancing — and tenants have to figure out how to navigate living with others in close quarters while reducing risk as much as possible.
This is easier to do in some spaces than others. Thirty-one-year-old Common resident Madeline Callahan, for instance, lives alone in a tiny 250-square-foot studio in Chicago, in a more traditional building where the only shared spaces are a lounge and a gym. “We have enough space to be in our own units so I think everyone is really taking that seriously and staying within our spaces [during the shelter-in-place],” she says.
Yet many of the amenities that are touted by co-living spaces in order to attract young professionals have been shut down. Gregg Christiansen, the president of the co-living startup Ollie, says that the company has shut down all gyms and common spaces and made all community events, such as meditation and cooking classes, virtual. It has also discontinued maid service for individual apartments, providing tenants with their own cleaning products instead.
But these practices seem to vary by startup. Callahan says Common has not shut down the gym and lounge in her Chicago building, though it sent an email discouraging residents from using them. “We look at social distancing as, ‘let’s try to keep people as far apart as possible.’ And we have multiple people in a suite. You don’t want 4 people working out in a living room enclosed in their suites at once,” says Brad Hargreaves, the CEO of Common, adding that shared spaces have been shut down in many of the buildings. “So we’ve made a decision home by home to decide how to try best implement social distancing.”
Haven, too, has not shut down its communal spaces, such as its meditation studio and movie theater; though guests are banned, a maid service comes in every day to clean. Community classes have been formally canceled, though Risien says that hasn’t really stopped residents from congregating. “A lot of us have been teaming up together. ‘You teach fitness exercises? Why don’t we team up and move our bodies?’ or ‘You teach photography? Why don’t we team up and take photos together?,’” she says. “Why not focus on taking advantage of the opportunity and the space we live in? It’s been a really fruitful time.” (It also hasn’t stopped them — or, perhaps, her specifically — from engaging in practices that carry the weight of high risk in the COVID era: “If you feel like you need a hug, then goddammit, I’ll give you a hug,” she said.)
Unsurprisingly, quarantining measures and an emphasis on social distancing has hit the co-living sector hard. While some Ollie spaces, such as its property in Pittsburgh, have seen an “uptick” in occupants due to neighboring college campuses evacuating students from dorms, the short-term stay market (i.e. 30-to-90 day leases) has “seen a pretty significant drop in occupancy and bookings,” Christiansen says. Common, too, has seen fewer applicants across the board (not just limited to its colliving spaces), with the conversion rate of deposits to signed leases dropping 80 to 50% in the past few weeks.
Though Haven’s community team did not respond to requests for comment, resident Samy Chevallier says he has seen a steep drop in occupants, many of whom were frightened of contracting the virus by living in such close quarters. Chevallier, 20, estimates that about 40 residents have left over the past week. “It’s kind of frustrating and weird at times to have so few people in the house when we’re used to having like 80 people,” he says.
Co-living startup residents have also not been exempt from layoffs and furloughs, and like the record 3.3 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits, are struggling to make rent. When asked if Ollie would waive rent for those unable to afford it next month, Christiansen said that the company was “addressing that on a one-off basis with our ownership partners” at various locations; Hargreaves says that Common has also rolled out payment plans for the approximately 50 residents who have emailed saying they can’t make rent. At Haven, where many residents are aspiring creatives and work in the service industry, management said at a community meeting that rent freezes would be determined “on a case-by-case basis” depending on members’ employment status and how much money they had in their savings, Chevallier and Risien said.
As the pandemic wreaks havoc on major urban centers where co-living is prominent, most notably New York City, it certainly raises questions about the value of living in close quarters with your neighbors in general. Christiansen says that he is confident the sector will continue to thrive, even in an era of extreme economic turmoil. “For the time being, COVID will ask the question of whether density of living, densifying apartment buildings, is a good thing,” he says. “But the more macro question you have to ask is: Will the cost of living be much lower post-COVID? And I think we’ll still have a cost of living issue.”
In the interim, co-living residents have to figure out how to navigate the minutiae of their daily lives while living with, in some cases, dozens of other people in close quarters. “When you choose to live in this type of space, it’s an inherently different mindset: You know you’re sharing your space, you know you’re sharing the place where you put your head at night,” says Callahan. “It’s a way for people to connect but it’s also a way for people to share, so in this particular climate it’s taking that same mindset and learning how to apply it differently.”
She says those values have been brought out by the crisis even if they can’t physically interact, with residents leaving macaroni and cheese in the lobby and interactive classes like a Digital Daybreaker (essentially, a day rave) providing a sense of community. “I feel more connected to people than I have for a very long time,” she says.
Risien does too, albeit for different reasons. “I am an improviser so I have studied the art of walking into the unknown,” she says. “So taking that into my life, I feel like I’ve been prepared for a situation like this.”