During a recent trip backpacking through Thailand, Kamilah Gray was taken with the experience of meeting new friends at hostels. So, once the 25-year-old got back in New York she Googled “adult dorm” on a whim and found Common.
It’s not exactly a dorm, she says, but it’s definitely a change in lifestyle. Three weeks ago, she moved into one of the start-up’s Crown Heights locations, where she pays $1,540 a month for a small bedroom that comes with a host of perks: a mattress, linens, free laundry and housekeeping, and, above all, a sense of belonging with her 18 new housemates– something that had been hard to achieve during her three years as a New Yorker.
Common is a new co-living startup from Brad Hargreaves, a co-founder of General Assembly. One of a cluster of group-living experiments breaking into New York’s tough real estate gridlock, it aims to upgrade the traditional “user experience” (er, disaster scenario, if we’re honest) of living with unknown roommates.
After all, with Car2Gos zooming around and cowork spaces proliferating in this era of sharing economy ascendence, surely the traditional apartment search is due for some major disruption? Common’s community-driven housing tries to smooth the process for young successful singletons by pairing fully furnished apartments with flexible month-t0-month leases and ample amenities. You don’t even need a credit history, you just need to submit to a background check.
Last October, Common opened its first co-living building in Crown Heights (followed by a second one in January) repurposing vacant multi-family brownstones into shared-floor apartment buildings. In the spring the company plans to open four more five-story buildings in Williamsburg, on South 3rd Street and Havemeyer. The new digs boast 51 bedrooms spread through 12 furnished suites, and also offer roof decks, backyards, and four large community areas that include a wellness studio and an entertainment center.
Paying for a room in Common may seem steep for the amount of square footage you can actually call your own. The sizes of the bedrooms vary from 100 to 200 square feet and a few include private bathrooms, so 12-month leases in Williamsburg will run from $1,800 to $2,650 per month (it’s a bit more expensive if you choose a 6-month lease or month-to-month).
Still, it’s easy to see the appeal of the nice furnishings and extras: the almost-identical minimalist bedrooms have just enough decor touches to feel familiar and suggest a degree of well-being, but are sparse enough to make your own. The mattresses are provided by Casper, the linens from Parachute, and much of the furniture from West Elm and Restoration Hardware. Each suite has its own kitchen and two shared bathrooms. Anyway, residents are meant to spend most of their down time gathered in common rooms for potlucks and events.
So is this next-level dorm living for Peter Pans who never outgrew their college years? A radical social experiment in the tradition of Real World? Or an on-demand, single-serving effort to solve some small fraction of the housing issues we’ve been wrestling with for decades? Older hallmarks of New York community life, like illegal squats, social housing and counterculture co-ops– all but faded away– seem like precursors to this new private 2.0 version.
“We really started Common to make the experience of living with roommates easy, and to solve as many of the issues as we can that roommates face when they are living together,” Hargreaves said. “It’s about building a community, as well, of people who are here for the long term and want to know their neighbors.”
To fix the bugs in the system (also known as disrespectful roommates and incompatible habits) Common tries to take everything out of the equation that might potentially annoy you about living with a bunch of strangers.
That means no more arguing over who has the clean the bathroom this week– instead there’s a weekly cleaning service. No passive-aggressively ignoring your roommate who never ponies up for the toilet paper and always steals your coffee– that’s all provided and restocked by Common. Utilities and wifi are also baked in to the price. Heck, there are even free laundry machines. Each resident is thoroughly background checked and interviewed to make sure they’re on board with the whole community thing, and if the vibe ends up not being for you anyway– or you succumb to a drunken hook-up that eventually turns sour– the month-to-month lease should make moving out painless.
And Hargreaves did his homework. Careful not to run afoul of the 30-day minimum for apartment rentals that’s been a constant point of contention for Airbnb, each resident must sign a lease for at least a month. And not wanting to be what he calls “part of the problem,” for now Common only refurbishes vacant buildings or, in the case of Williamsburg, links up with projects already underway.
Residents have only been living in the Crown Heights Common apartments for about three months, but Hargreaves said he was surprised to find most of the people who signed up have full-time steady jobs and are not necessarily the itinerant freelancer types or students you might expect to love a coworking space that doubles as a living space. “The community has turned into the much larger value proposition versus the flexibility,” Hargreaves said.
So far, the “Common-ers” are mostly in their late 20s, but range up to 40, and there’s about a fifty-fifty distribution between newcomers to the city and long-time residents. (And– perhaps not surprisingly– we hear there’s quite a few rebounding from recent breakups.)
Built-in activities like weekly potlucks and book clubs keep the residents busy, but Hargreaves added that Common sees itself more as a facilitator than an event organizer. The residents use messaging-app Slack to update each other on spontaneous morning pancake parties or group excursions, and come up with their own hackathons or themed dinners. The other Common apartment buildings provide an expanded network, and residents will be able to go over and share the game room or the wellness studio of different buildings once the Williamsburg apartments open. There’s even a community “slush fund” you can request to tap into to pay for extra joint activities. It’s easy to imagine a network of homes like this expanding around the world.
But the fact that a built-in community would be so in-demand surprised me at first. Are we that fragmented and busy that we’ve started looking for (and we’re willing to pay a premium for) the equivalent of a camp to make socializing hassle-free? And is community becoming a luxury perk– basically an add-on amenity– for the young and successful?
Then again, how many times have I wished my friends lived down the block so I could call them for an impromptu drink-and-chat after work, a la Friends, instead of planning a month in advance for a rushed catch-up dinner? Or complained that it’s so hard to meet new people and keep up with them when I’m working late every other night?
Gray, a marketing manager at Bloomberg, says tapping into a community in New York felt a bit like a chore before she moved into one of Common’s Crown Heights buildings. “If you didn’t go to school here or have a kind of friend group, you have to actively pursue making friends,” she said. “And you have to really go to bat and make plans consistently and make sure you are a part of different things.”
So far she loves her new lifestyle and appreciates her window into the varied backgrounds of her new housemates– structural engineers, artists, graduate students and teachers. It also comes in handy “from getting chocolate chips to networking.”
And the flexibility is definitely a plus, too, in case work takes her to a new location. “I didn’t like the concept of buying furniture and decorating your place,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of me buying all these things and having to be in one place for a long period of time, and that’s the normal apartment concept.”
If you see yourself in a Williamsburg Common apartment, better start lining up– Hargreaves said they already got 1,000 applicants on their last round of spots.