By Brian J. Pape
George Capsis asked me to please find the nonprofit company he saw in a TV presentation about “shared” apartments designed for unrelated individuals who are living collectively on either side of a shared kitchen and bath because this was like senior share apartments he wrote about in an earlier edition. A search turned up only for-profit co-living for intergenerational housing, but let’s look at some examples to help understand the difference between “co-living” and “co-housing.”
On a basic level, co-living is living with strangers. Non-traditional housing options have been tried by New Yorkers for a long time—in boarding houses and single-room occupancy units (SROs), student dorm units, fraternity house bedrooms, or the infamous “warm bed” tenement sharing of old. The tech-driven “sharing economy” community now offers co-living with some amenities like free housekeeping services, flexible leases, access to special events, communal lounges or chat rooms, even “happy hours.” As you might expect, most options are geared toward younger renters, but the methodology is applicable to intergenerational housing too.
Common, one of the big co-living companies, was founded in 2015 by Brad Hargreaves who previously founded, with several Yale classmates, the digital education hub General Assembly in NYC. Common operates 10 co-living buildings in New York City and has operations in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago providing “community-minded shared living solutions.” Albany Avenue in Crown Heights offers rooms starting at $1,340/month; on Baltic Street in Boerum Hill rooms start at $2,143/month. Common acts as the property management for each of its buildings; renters are considered “members” and get their own rooms but share kitchens, bathrooms, and other spaces. Necessities like Wi-Fi, heating and A/C, laundry, and toiletries are also included in the monthly rent. Leases are more flexible than at traditional rentals; members have the option of moving to a different building without penalty, and if they need to move out before their lease ends the company will work to find a replacement tenant.
WeLive was developed by WeWork, applying the parent company’s co-working concept to apartment living. Renters can live in anything from a studio to a four-bedroom apartment, furnished with bed linens and TV, and share common spaces that include movie rooms, lounge areas, workout studios, and kitchens with kitchen supplies. Private studios start at $3,050 a month, and four-bedroom apartments (typically shared among roommates) start at $7,600 a month. Utilities are a flat rate per person, $125 a month, which includes heat, hot water, gas, once-a-month cleaning, Wi-Fi and cable.
London-based development firm, the Collective, has announced plans for a “flagship location” in the U.S., a mixed-use co-living building at 555 Broadway in Brooklyn. Under the plan, approved by the De Blasio administration and community groups, 375 affordable apartments (out of 500) will be included, along with a food hall, a “community-focused restaurant and bar,” several co-working areas, rehearsal spaces, a fitness center, art gallery, landscaped outdoor plaza with artwork and public seating, and will host workshops, seminars, and performances.
Co-Housing is well-designed affordable housing for social inclusion, sustainability, and the vitality of shared space, created as a cooperative of owner/occupants. I have worked with co-housing organizations in Missouri and New York and have learned of the challenges and benefits of such a housing approach. Seniors, in particular, could enjoy the special community of co-housing.
According to a report by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, created in 2008 by leaders in city government, private finance and the nonprofit sector, homeowner demographics in New York are shifting, with now about a third of homeowners at age 65 and over. Of these senior homeowners, three-quarters are low to moderate-income; many are living on fixed incomes, many will need resources and services to support themselves as they age in place, as well as additional support to protect them from financial shocks. The Center for NYC Neighborhoods recommended solutions are:
Support seniors aging in place: the increasing number of lower-income senior homeowners will require assistance obtaining affordable financing for home repairs and accessibility retrofits, resolving tax and water delinquencies, identifying and applying for senior tax exemptions, and handling thorny estate issues.
Support reverse mortgage borrowers and develop safer lending products: as more homeowners become seniors, we can expect increased numbers of reverse mortgage borrowers and reverse mortgage defaults. In addition to assistance in averting reverse mortgage foreclosure, greater resources are needed to educate borrowers about the risks and responsibilities of this product.
In Oakland, California, Swan’s Market is an historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of an award-winning innovative mixed-use historic preservation project, with 20 affordable housing residences, retail stores, restaurants and offices. It is in an urban area close to amenities, public transportation, and a variety of supportive opportunities and services. At a recent meeting at Swan’s Market Cohousing, an intergenerational co-housing community, some of the senior residents discussed their choice to live here and the evolution of their experience over the past 19 years. The community is self-managed and all of the residents are board members. The intergenerational aspect and its value were discussed, including the enjoyment of having children around playing in the courtyard and watching their milestones of growth and development (i.e. learning to ride a tricycle). The residences vary in size from 600 sq. ft. to 1500 sq. ft. with the average at 1000 sq. ft. There is also a guest room and fitness room for use by all residents. Some of the original residents described how the community came about when a group of people were willing to buy in early, take a risk, and have a part in the design process. They spoke of the sense of “community” and that much of it is built on trust. As an example, there is always someone available nearby to help during an emergency. A key element is to separate out the automobiles in a garage underneath a large linear courtyard and community garden, where residents join together and conveniently interact; “eyes on the courtyard” added to the sense of community and security.
A gentleman who is a senior living in a co-housing community near Denver was present and described the difficulties in start-up and the problems with evolving healthcare issues of residents. Even though it is a supportive environment, there are challenges. Discussion led to the evolution of living there over time, and that there is an initial “honeymoon” period that can eventually diminish; yet most get through that and consider it a blip. Problems do arise, such as what constitutes having a pet “under control” as opinions may vary, yet they seem to get resolved communally in a consensus manner. One drawback for seniors as they age, that was noted regarding Swan’s Market, is that the residences were designed primarily as two-story residences with only a half bath on the first level.
Potential residents have to understand and recognize the rules of the community, including communal cooking/meals and maintenance (work days, which require residents to work at least four or ten days during the year). In vetting prospective residents, there is a desire to look at “ideology vs. personality.”
Adaptation to change (recently a convenient local supermarket closed), turn-over of residents, and health issues do impact the dynamic of the community.
A resource book was referenced, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant.
Brian J. Pape is an architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, and is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee.