Renting one of eight bedrooms in an Allston Victorian once cost me $500 a month — a figure that, to current Boston renters, probably sounds pulled from a Depression-era Steinbeck novel, even if it happened less than two decades ago. But the larger point is this: Sharing space and resources saves money, and is often the only way people can afford to live in Boston. Not only that, but given the right roommates, at the right time of your life, the buzz of a busy home can also be a lot of fun — a welcomed, organic jump-start to your social life in a new city.
In this age of rising rents and social isolation, the economics and built-in community aspects of roommate living hold an undeniable appeal, a fact not lost on developers. So it’s no wonder Boston’s most anticipated residential projects — including 7INK, the seventh and final building under construction at Ink Block in the South End — are slated to include co-living rentals.
Scheduled to open in 2021, 7INK will marry lavish communal spaces with a mix of micro-units (small studios and one-bedrooms) and two- to four-bedroom co-living apartments. In the latter arrangement, each tenant will get a private bedroom, but will share a furnished living area, kitchen, and, in some cases, a bathroom with roommates. Residents also will get access to communal, building-wide gathering spaces, like a giant kitchen and a roof deck overlooking the city. And rent will include everything from furniture to dishware to shampoo, plus perks like Wi-Fi, weekly house cleaning, and an on-site hospitality manager.
“There’ll be far more amenity space in this building than you’d find elsewhere, and it’s all built in this concept of community,’’ said Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development, the Newton-based developer behind Ink Block. “It goes back hundreds of years, the way people used to live together and liked to interact and meet their neighbors … this is sort of our modern twist on that.’’
In designing 7INK, John Martin of Elkus Manfredi Architects tried to think about what daily experiences people like to share — and which ones they really don’t. “We thought about, as we move through our days, what part of my day do I want to be entirely in solitude, in private, what part of my day do I want to be with other people, and what parts in between do I mind sharing?’’ Martin told the Big Dig podcast.
“Clearly when I’m asleep, I do not want other people around; that’s a very private activity, that’s in my private bedroom,’’ Martin said. Likewise, most of the bathrooms in 7INK’s co-living units are en suite. But other activities, from dining to watching a football game, are often best enjoyed with others. “And if you think about your day, you’d be surprised by how much of it is either already shared or could be shared and might be a better socialization model,’’ he said.
With more than half of Americans ages 18 to 49 saying they often or always feel lonely, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, it’s a social housing model whose time has come … back. “Funnily enough, co-living is intriguing because it is not a new concept,’’ said Taylor Cain, director of Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab. “From boarding houses, intentional communities, and single-room occupancy units, people have been living and sharing resources together for decades.’’
Indeed, Boston was teeming with boarding houses a century ago. But with rents rising and young adults delaying milestones like marriage and homeownership, the number of unrelated households in the Boston area — those with at least one non-family roommate — increased 55.4 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to an Apartment List analysis of census data. And co-living companies believe there’s an appetite for a roommate experience that’s more standardized and sanitized than traditional Craigslist bingo.
“Our general philosophy is to keep all the good parts of roommate living and get rid of all the bad parts,’’ said Brian Lee, senior director of real estate at Common, a New York-based co-living company with 1,000-plus residents in six US cities. Arx Urban and Common have filed plans with the city of Boston to build a 282-bed co-living project called Common Allbright in Allston.
“I think Boston has a lot of the same characteristics that have made us successful in cities like New York and San Francisco,’’ Lee said. “Rents are very high in Boston, there’s not a lot of residential supply, and so a lot of young professionals making between $50,000 and $90,000 a year don’t have great housing options.’’
Common Allbright’s proposal includes 35 income-restricted bedrooms starting at $844 a month, according to plans submitted to the city, while the market-rate rent in a four-bedroom unit is estimated to start at $1,500 a month. In both instances, rent is inclusive of utilities, Wi-Fi, weekly house cleaning, furniture, kitchenware, and supplies like toilet paper and dish soap.
Lee said those included benefits can make a renter’s overall housing cost lower than in even a traditional roommate scenario. It also means never chasing down roommates for their share of the Internet bill or waiting in disgusted vain for someone else to clean the shower because you did it last time. “We try to identify upfront what roommates fight about,’’ Lee said. “Who’s going to clean the kitchen, who’s going to clean the bathroom, how are we going to split the bills?’’
And Common, like most co-living operators, issues individual leases — so if your roommate falls behind on rent, it’s not your problem. “Each roommate is indemnified from the financial situation of the others,’’ Lee said. “We’ve found all of that really goes a long way in terms of proactively mitigating roommate conflict, so people just have fewer issues to fight about.’’
The median age of a Common renter is about 30, Lee said, with a median income nationwide of around $73,000. “About 50 percent of our renters are moving from a different city,’’ he added, a feat made simpler when your new apartment comes furnished down to the cutlery and styled by a staff designer. Flexible lease terms can be as short as three months and — in a boon to new arrivals with a job but no savings — there’s no broker’s fee. Security deposits can be spread out into monthly rent payments instead of being paid upfront.
“Co-living seems targeted to a particular life-cycle moment,’’ said Lawrence Vale, professor of urban design and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The concept seems largely targeted to post-college millennial singles who have a job and a sense of adventure, but no furniture, roommates, or certainty about where they will be working a year from now.’’
Vale stressed that co-living is not the same as cohousing, where residents, often families, share common spaces but are also very intentional about creating a long-term community. While the two living arrangements share certain elements — namely, striking a balance between privacy and community and saving money in the process — co-living is more transient and transactional in nature. “Co-living has the cost savings of cohousing,’’ Vale said, but lacks the stable, self-constructed community ethos. “Instead, it is a marketable real estate product, targeted to those who hope that someone else can help them find a post-dorm social community.’’
Tye bristles at comparisons to college dorms. After all, this is fairly luxurious living — nobody will be bunking up in a cinder-block bedroom or sharing a Spartan bathroom with half the floor. But between the common areas, structured activities, and (mostly, but not entirely) young clientele, a dorm is the nearest example that comes to mind for many people. And for those who enjoyed the electric vibrancy of college housing, a sophisticated spin on the dorm may sound more like a selling point than a problem.
Demand is certainly strong at Common’s existing properties. Among the 1,000-plus bedrooms that Common currently operates in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, “we consistently have a 98 to 99 percent occupancy rate,’’ Lee said. The company receives some 16,000 inquiries a month, he added, so it’s working to expand: Common has roughly 900 bedrooms currently in the planning pipeline for metro Boston. That includes the Allbright and a roughly 200-room project slated for development in Cambridge, as well as potential developments in the Fenway, South End, Somerville, Newton, and Revere.
“I’m very excited about the potential in Boston,’’ Lee said. “We think this is a product that can work in a lot of different neighborhoods there.’’
Tye said National Development is also scoping out other locations for co-living projects around Boston. In the meantime, he expects the concept to thrive amid the convenience and “18-hour’’ vitality of the Ink Block neighborhood. For as much as co-living makes it possible to share in the cultural riches of the city, it also depends on that vitality to succeed.
“It does require a kind of synergy from surrounding urban amenities,’’ said Bing Wang, associate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. “It’s a residential typology that cannot just stand alone somewhere further in the suburbs; it does need walkability, restaurants, public transit, all these to create that kind of synergy.’’
Tye said 13 percent of the units in 7INK will be income-restricted to meet the city’s inclusionary development guidelines. But at this stage, downtown co-living is less a true affordable housing option than a convenient, communal discount on luxury living. National Development has yet to announce pricing for 7INK, but Tye said that, even with utilities and other amenities included, they want to keep rents $200 to $300 less than at comparable apartments.
“So it’s more service, a little bit less personal real estate, but a more moderately priced option,’’ he said. Still, rents at those comparable apartments — studios at Ink Block — currently start around $3,000 a month.
That said, co-living can still help people afford to live in expensive cities like Boston when they may not otherwise be able to, Wang said, “because, after all, aggregating rent is still cheaper.’’