When I was in college, like virtually all other students my age, I had roommates.
In fact, when money got tight in my senior year, I ended up renting a walk-in closet in a three-bedroom house with eight of my closest friends. For us it was fun, part of the collegiate experience; we didn’t think about our arrangement as a solution to poverty or a cost-saving innovation for a housing crisis. We were just goofy kids trying to figure out how to save enough money for the weekend.
In reality, communal living has a long, complicated, and important past in our society. A century ago it was an integral part of the housing economy. Beds were for rent and in almost any city you could find a flop house or residential hotel where people could buy a safe, cheap place to sleep for the night. Home was where you laid your head and for most folks there were at least some options on any given night.
A little while later the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) emerged in the ecosystem. Essentially just a small bedroom with shared facilities, the SRO dominated the scene as truly affordable housing for poor, disabled and elderly Americans in the years to come.
But with the rise of single-family homes and the growing belief of how a “home” should most appropriately be defined, we did what we’ve done best for quite some time: take something important from those who need it most. SROs started to be widely characterized as undesirable housing and by the time the 1980s came around, jurisdictions across the nation deemed more than one million units substandard and unlivable, removing a life-saving commodity from the market.
With the loss of this critical housing stock, thousands and thousands of people had nowhere to go. Along with a dismantled mental health system and wages that failed to keep up with the cost-of-living, the demise of the SRO was one of the major contributors to the modern homelessness epidemic that we see on our streets today.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that we started to re-embrace the idea of shared housing as a “modern solution” to the existing housing crisis in the Bay Area. In theory, dramatically shrinking the size of units while also sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities should significantly reduce the cost of construction and drive prices down for renters.
Affordability without government subsidy seems like a model that just makes too much sense, right?
In February, San Jose passed a co-living ordinance to allow the development of “Co-Living Communities” in the downtown area. A developer quickly jumped on this opportunity, proposing an apartment building housing nearly 800 beds.
The anticipated rent at this new site: just north of $2,000 each month, excluding necessities like parking, meals or laundry service that can all be purchased onsite for the right price.
In peak Silicon Valley fashion, what was once a critical tool to provide a home for people struggling to survive has now become a bougie option for tech workers, entrepreneurs and a host of other financially capable millennials looking for a more spartan lifestyle.
Meanwhile, there are more than 7,000 people outside today in Santa Clara County. And 35,000 renters making less than 30 percent of the area median income, while paying more than 70 percent of monthly wages towards their rent. Every day, more and more of these people are losing their homes and the crisis is becoming a catastrophe before our very eyes.
I’m not saying that these co-living communities don’t have real merit as a housing type, nor am I criticizing the city for bringing this ordinance forward.
But there is something truly bizarre and maybe even perversely wrong when gentrification is now spreading beyond neighborhoods and into architecture. There is a real opportunity here to recapture value, develop alternative living situations and create some desperately needed affordability, but if co-living only exists for those making above moderate incomes then this will just be another door that is closed for so many.
Instead, we should be broadening the geographic boundaries of where these co-living communities are allowed to places outside of the most expensive land in the city. We should also be actively working with our developer partners to explore using this model to serve some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
In Los Angeles, FlyawayHomes – a supportive housing developer with a unique approach to housing – recently opened its doors to 32 homeless residents in a co-living development that cost $3.6 million and was built from the ground up in less than a year.
Quick, cost effective and built for tenants who really need the help most. As opposed to just being a boutique choice for a few, it seems like with a little more effort, this could end up being a win for us all.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.