Will COVID-19 spell the end of the co-living trend in Boston?
What was supposed to be the answer to Boston’s housing shortage and high rents may have a branding problem, thanks to coronavirus.
What was supposed to be the silver bullet to Boston’s ongoing housing shortage and skyrocketing rents may have a branding problem, thanks to coronavirus.
Co-living was touted as a way to provide younger renters an affordable, cleaner way of living in a downtown residential complex without the awkward hassle of finding roommates on their own. The concept, similar to its office cousin co–working, came with marketing tags that now seem obsolete: socializing, community-building, shared spaces — you get the drift.
But the developers and proponents of bringing co-living to Boston are surprisingly upbeat about their upcoming projects.
“When you think about co-living in this moment, our initial reaction gives us pause,’’ said Taylor Cain, director of Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab. “At this moment, it’s making us do some reflection on what sharing space means and what we want and need from our housing. But I don’t think it’s something we now have to completely throw out of the toolbox.’’
Co-living developments are college dormitories for young professionals or the next evolutionary step of somewhat affordable living in Boston’s urban core, depending on who’s talking. Providers like Ollie and Common market their products as offering low-commitment affordability without sacrificing amenities like fitness centers.
Developments typically include a private bedroom but shared living spaces, including kitchens and amenity floors similar to those found in newer Seaport District and South End residential buildings.
Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab studied co-living as a way to create more housing density and meet Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s goal of adding 69,000 new residential units by 2030 and making the city a more attainable place to live.
The co-living idea has a younger vibe thanks to the concept having a similar community-building base akin to co-working, a commercial office product led by youthful startups like WeWork. The co-working company’s parent company even had its own co-living division, WeLive, slated to expand rapidly until WeWork’s IPO failed last fall.
But WeWork’s stalled co-living expansion and the ongoing pandemic shouldn’t hinder the burgeoning residential sector’s Boston rollout, said developers and marketers behind two of the region’s biggest projects under development.
“I think there’s an initial reaction now of, ‘Oo, co-living,’ because of the words, but, when you really think about the reality, if you’re in your 20s or 30s, you’re living with roommates anyway if you’re living in the city,’’ said Katie Sullivan, a marketing director at real estate developer Boylston Properties.
Community building shouldn’t be misconstrued with close living quarters, said Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development.
National Development is behind 7INK, a South End co-living development slated to deliver in 2022 in the Ink Block mixed-use development. More than half the units at 7INK are either studio or one-bedroom units. Even the multi-bedroom units come with private bedrooms that include both sleeping and living spaces. Some of the units offer en-suite baths.
“To understand co-living is to know that there is privacy, safety, and support in these communities, in many cases more, or as much as, in traditional apartments,’’ Tye said. “Co-living and multifamily buildings have not seen disproportional COVID outbreaks and have adjusted policies, use of some spaces, and cleaning protocols during this time as preventive measures.’’
National Development is even considering more co-living projects beyond 7INK, he added. But that doesn’t mean coronavirus hasn’t affected how the developer is approaching the new residential development.
Common areas in the South End project are being reevaluated, including scaled-down versions that can be used by smaller groups or individuals. The developer plans to expand fitness areas to better account for social distancing, and National Development added more operable windows and enhanced HVAC systems to provide more fresh air throughout the property.
Because the pandemic hit essentially two years out from the project’s completion, the development tweaks aren’t adding much to the overall cost, Tye said.
“If anything, the current COVID-19 situation has shown how difficult social isolation can be and how much people yearn to be part of a supportive community … at a time like this,’’ he added. “While we hope that COVID-19 will be history in 2022, we have taken some lessons that can be applied to 7INK’s design and operation.’’
Boylston Properties and ARX Urban, the development team behind Common Allbright — a roughly 80-unit, 282-bedroom co-living project approved in Allston — said COVID-19 could actually be a way to position co-living as a better and safer way to live.
Nearly 1 in 3 American adults already live in a “shared household,’’ or in one with someone they aren’t linked to by marriage or family relations, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study.
“People living with people they didn’t know before is going on regardless of coronavirus,’’ said Benjie Moll, ARX Urban founder. “It’s not a behavior that’s going to stop in the next few years because of this. We simply can’t, because affordability is the most paramount issue we face with the housing stock in our Boston housing market.’’
Common, the co-working brand partnering with the development team on the Allston project, experienced some drop-off in residential demand during the second half of March, but has since rebounded, Moll said.
The developer plans to fuel demand by advertising Common Allbright’s amenities, a weekly cleaning service, and even private work-from-home space as a competitive advantage — especially in a neighborhood like Allston.
But can amenities overcome a pandemic? Both 7INK and Common Allbright are still a few years from opening the doors to their first residents. That not only gives medical researchers time to find a vaccine, it also gives time for pandemic fears to subside.
“From a marketing perspective, we’re a little ways out. We’re not necessarily looking at our marketing to be specific to COVID-19,’’ Sullivan said of the Allston project. “My inclination is to promote the benefits [rather] than to shy away from what it is.’’
Shared resources and community-building aspects touted in co-living marketing plans may seem taboo during a time of social distancing, but James Stockard, a Harvard Graduate School of Design lecturer in urban planning and design, anticipates these features will be highly coveted in the post-pandemic recovery when Boston’s first major co-living projects are expected to open.
Stockard teaches a course in housing innovations, and co-living repeatedly comes up in lectures and projects as a way to tackle affordability in major cities like Boston. But there is a psychological benefit to the projects, too. Anxiety and depression are on the rise in the United States during the pandemic. Forty-five percent of Americans said worry and stress from coronavirus had a negative impact on their mental health, according to an early-April Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll.
Stockard, who has spent the last 47 years living in the Common Place Cooperative near Porter Square in Cambridge with his wife, not only teaches the benefits of co-living — he lives it. The eight-unit complex is home to 13 people, nine of which — including Stockard — who have been residents since 1973.
“One of the great values of co-living or, in our case, cooperative living, is the simple knowledge you’re living in a community,’’ he said. “While we’re not necessarily best friends, we would do anything for each other.’’
While each household has a private unit, the families are close. When a Common Place neighbor suffered a heart attack, Stockard and his fellow residents joined the man’s wife to get a doctor’s brief on how to care for him.
Co-living doesn’t mean social distancing guidelines are tossed out the window, however. Monthly board meetings at Common Place are held currently via Zoom due to coronavirus fears even though residents all live within steps of one another. Neighbors enforce heightened cleaning guidelines of public spaces and also refrain from entering one another’s units.
But Stockard expects the tight-knit camaraderie he has in Cambridge will flourish as shelter-in-place orders relax and co-living takes off, both in Boston and elsewhere around the country.
“My professional observation as an urban planner is that a huge number of people in this country long for that sense of community and to be connected to more people,’’ Stockard said. “Co-living is one of the ways that can happen.’’
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