Co-living startups are selling millennials the hippie dream—minus the hard work and revolution

Co-living does not have a lot in common with the counter-cultural communes at its root.
Co-living does not have a lot in common with the counter-cultural communes at its root.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Some people dream of sailing around the world for a year, or quitting their job to live in the mountains and write a great novel. My personal fantasy is to start my own commune. I’ll get a group of friends together to buy a decommissioned elementary school. We’ll cook together in the big industrial kitchen, turn the schoolyard into a community garden, convert the classrooms into bed-and-bath suites. The chance to pool our resources, create a community, and upend the nuclear-family model of living sounds intensely appealing to me. And the idea of eating dinner with a dynamic tangle of friends and loved ones every night doesn’t hurt, either.

So I’ve watched with interest as Silicon Valley-backed startups look for ways to update communal living for the 21st century. On the surface, so-called “co-living” companies, including WeLive, Common, Node, Krash, and Pure House may seem like the millennial version of hippie-founded intentional communities. But the actual structure and premise of these experiments in high-density living are actually at philosophical odds with their counter-cultural roots. And that makes me wonder whether they can truly deliver on the happiness they promise to prospective tenants.

“Being together is better than being alone”

Co-living spaces cater to a specific type of person: upwardly mobile, single young professionals seeking maximum convenience and flexibility in their living situations. From their pre-furnished apartments to the stocked kitchen and shampoo dispensers, co-living spaces are designed to liberate tenants from quotidian concerns.

Rent is pricey—often upwards of $2,000 a month to live with something like 10 other people. But in exchange, tenants get to eschew the beta version of young adulthood that has traditionally involved the footwork of finding a crappy apartment, acceptable roommates, and an enjoyable social life. In most, luxe furnishings even eschew the tradition of finding a dresser on the street, or buying a bed at Ikea. Like so many other companies funded by venture capital, co-living aims to help privileged people bypass these challenging but ultimately achievable tasks, supplying toilet paper and dish soap, cleaning services, and social calendars stacked with movie nights and yoga classes.

Much of the language these start-ups use to describe themselves is ripe for parody. Krash calls itself a “particle accelerator for people.” A company called Ollie is developing North America’s largest co-living development in Long Island City, Queens, and has created an app called Bedvetter to match roommates. Yes, they named it that on purpose.

But to hear co-living acolytes tell it, this set-up is a recipe for happiness—even a potential solution the epidemic of loneliness said to be sweeping the US. “We’ve been driven by a desire to help build meaningful relationships and bring a little more love and belonging to the world,” Tom Currier, the CEO of co-living company Campus, wrote to his customers—in the same letter announcing that the company was about to fold.

Adam Neumann, of the co-founder and CEO of WeWork, which owns WeLive, told the New Yorker that his years living on a kibbutz as a teenager in Israel had convinced him that people are meant to live in groups. “The fulfillment I felt being part of a community was so real, gave me so much strength to deal with my own personal challenges, that it’s always been ingrained in me that being together is better than being alone,” he said. He added that WeLive aims to provide residents with the option of privacy—“but if they don’t want to, they will never be alone in their life!”

There’s no doubt that it’s annoying to find an apartment in a tight housing market, much as it’s annoying to deal with laundry or fill up on gas. And co-living spaces are surely a boon for young people who might otherwise feel isolated in a big new city. But ultimately, co-living spaces are built to reinforce the self-centered, disconnected status quo of the digital era. In erasing inconvenience and any possibility of friction or need for compromise, they perpetuate the idea that the self comes before everyone else. And examining questions like why the housing market is so expensive, or where elderly or low-income people might turn for similar services, is beyond the scope of the problems that co-living spaces are working to solve.

Carving out utopia

Traditional intentional communities, meanwhile, aim to address social problems head-on. On a micro level, there are the daily chores and responsibilities that force people to figure out how to live cooperatively: washing the dishes together, taking turns cleaning the bathrooms, and voting about whether to raise chickens or enforce quiet hours after 10 pm.

The most collectivist intentional communities, in which land, labor and all responsibilities are shouldered equally by members in an intensely cooperative, often agrarian setting, prefer to call themselves egalitarian communities. Kat Kinkade, one of the founders of Twin Oaks in Virginia, the oldest egalitarian community in the US, writes in her book, Is It Utopia Yet?, “Central to my own happiness was my conviction that there was no task on earth more important, or certainly more interesting, than the building of an egalitarian community.”

Although few self-identified intentional communities are as rigorous in their structure as Twin Oaks, many share a sense of mission explicitly seeking to address socioeconomic and racial injustice, financial barriers and social alienation embedded in the American housing market. Individual communities may also grow out of a shared commitment to a given political cause—anarchists working together to participate as little as possible in the mainstream economy, or eco-villages in which single-family homes share a piece of land and a commitment to green living. In other words, they’re doing a lot more intellectual and social heavy lifting than your typical co-living start-up.

That sense of purpose is essential to building a happier life. Bjørn Grinde is a Norwegian evolutionary biologist who did a study of members of intentional communities of all kinds, most of whom were located in North America, in partnership with the Fellowship for Intentional Communities. He found that people who lived in those communities reported far higher levels of happiness than their peers, especially in North America. In a phone call from his office at the Norwegian Institute for Public Health in Oslo, he explained that despite the American obsession with individuality and independence, the most consistent factor for predicting happiness is social connectivity. “Individual freedom has some narcotic aspects,” Grinde said. “But it’s not necessarily the best option in the long run for the average person.”

This sentiment is echoed by people I know who’ve gone in for communal living. Lara Henderson, an artist and bookmaker I met through my sister, told me that moving into AS220, an artist’s collective in Providence, Rhode Island, with shared living and studio spaces, has been life-changing for her—both personally and professionally. In addition to access to tools and equipment, like a printshop, living among other working artists has provided her with emotional and professional support, in an avocation that is both competitive and financially challenging.

My old friend George Popham told me about his experience starting a communal house with a mix of couples and singles, ranging in ages from 30 to 50, just outside of Boston. “I turned 50 this year and I’m seeing a lot of my peers completely atomize,” he said. “They’re isolated in their nuclear family, and they have no friends … If you’re over 40, your prospects for having community, the way our society works, is just absolutely nil.” The house, which disbanded after two years when the landlord did not renew the lease, wasn’t organized around a specific philosophy. But Popham said the custom of cooking dinner together every night became the beating heart of the enterprise.

In our conversation, Grinde was quick to note that co-living spaces are likely more conducive to happiness than living alone, since they do provide a social connection. As a scientist, however, he declined to speculate about whether co-living might provide the other major happiness maker his research has identified—feeling that your life has meaning.

Grinde’s theory is that we evolved to value a sense of purpose because it motivates us to work hard and make long-term investments. A feeling of satisfaction after a good day’s work might once have encouraged a hunter-gatherer to keep picking berries, even beyond her tribe’s needs for the day. Now it gets mapped onto activities like work, volunteering, and creative expression.

Intentional communities are designed to make people feel that they’re contributing to a greater cause—whether by helping to prepare communal meals, sharing spaces that support artists, or building a treehouse for kids on a shared piece of land. These tasks aren’t just points of social connection; they’re crucial to creating an ethos that deeply respects work, whether it’s paid or not.

Co-living, on the other hand, aims to free residents from the everyday drudgery of chores, much in the way Soylent attempts to free programmers from the terrible burden of eating. But there is something to be said in favor of taking responsibility for the upkeep of the space where you live. As poet and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in the 1988 essay “Economy and Pleasure,” “The nearly intolerable irony in our dissatisfaction is that we have removed pleasure from our work in order to remove ‘drudgery’ from our lives.”

Practical living

The individualistic mindset of co-living spaces is evident in their near-exclusive focus on relatively young, single people. For many families, finding affordable housing and childcare is a legitimate crisis. So why are there so many different ways for mobile tech workers to enjoy networking and well-designed furniture—but not a single start-up, as yet, trying to replicate the semi-communal parenting experience outlined in one much-shared New York Times story?

Seeking answers, I reached out to Common founder Brad Hargreaves, who has a toddler of his own. Unlike a start-up like Krash, which basically monetizes the infamous Silicon Valley convention of short-term crash pads known as hacker houses, Common actively works to maintain long-term tenants and build a strong community within each house.

Hargreaves was quick to agree that finding housing is even more challenging for families than for singles or couples. “I think there’s a huge need for some of the same shared amenities and space for families with young kids,“ he said. “It’s something we’re very interested in and I hope we can tackle in the coming years.”

He added that Common has already made changes to its model since launching in the fall of 2015, in an effort to foster a deeper sense of community. They’ve stopped offering one-month leases, and now offer discounts on 12-month leases to encourage longer-term tenants. Each house has a leader who receives a discount on rent and helps facilitate events and moderate potential conflicts.

Over the course of my conversation with Hargreaves, I became less skeptical of co-living. That’s because, when he talks about the main problem that Common is trying to solve, he doesn’t talk about personal happiness or tight-knit community. Instead, he focuses on the practical attempt to address New York City’s housing crunch. “I think it’s fundamentally about solving a housing problem and specifically a really underserved segment of the housing market, which are people who live with roommates,” he said.

In New York City, most apartments are set up for families or couples, leaving roommates to construct their own habitats with cheap temporary walls and “bedrooms” with no windows or closets. “I don’t think that’s a great way to live,” Hargreaves said. Co-living spaces like Common are working with developers to design spaces specifically set up for roommates—a living situation that’s not going away anytime soon.

Given how intimidating and stressful the process of finding an apartment in a new city can be, I can see why Common and other co-living spaces have so much appeal. I might well apply to them myself, if I was making a big move to a new place. But it’s worth keeping in mind that, as with so many Silicon Valley endeavors, co-living is mostly about convenience—not social revolution.