Atlantic Cities

One Answer to San Francisco's Overpriced Housing: 'Co-Living'

One Answer to San Francisco's Overpriced Housing: 'Co-Living'
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Allegedly popular in San Francisco: Investor-backed individuals turning mansions into modern-day communes, in which a couple dozen residents share meals, chores, entrepreneurial ideas, deep discussions, and maybe, one day, babysitters.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there are over 20 of these communal living estates in the Bay Area, with more on the way. Stripping away the tech influence and large estates, these groups look like the average roommate situation, only bigger. But is "collaborative housing" really a brewing movement?

If a new Bay Area real estate firm called Open Door Development Group is any indication, it very well might be. Open Door is dedicated to developing "co-living" properties that emphasize common space over private space.

The Embassy, a 7,500 sq.ft, eight-bedroom mansion in San Francisco, is one of two properties currently operating under Open Door. Living in the Embassy is kind of like living inside the so-called "sharing economy" 24/7. Residents cook meals together and share amenities like a music room, craft room, 3-D printers and a bowling alley. The house also hosts weekly dinners and other events open to the public.


A dinner setup at the Embassy. (Photo courtesy of Embassy SF

One big goal of the house is to curate a diverse community—current residents come from the fields of science, engineering, design, business, law, and more. Embassy and Open Door co-founder Jessy Kate Schingler says the different sized rooms in the house allow rents that range from the pricier end to well below market rates. The cheaper rents are further offset by Airbnb-style short-term stays.

This spectrum of rents doesn't exactly promote an authentically diverse neighborhood, but rather a kind of "engineered" diversity that brings value to the house. Applicants to the Embassy are selected around the non-negotiable core value of "a passion for high-impact ideas." So any Average Joe making $25,000 may not be able to get a spot, but a graduate student on a $25,000 stipend and a mission to cure aging has a better chance.

Open Door plans to lease out more single properties like the Embassy and begin acquiring 40-60 unit residential buildings. Eventually, they want to design and build collaborative housing from the ground up. The central idea is that urban development grounded in "shared spaces" could help address larger issues like housing affordability or traffic congestion. For example, collaborative housing properties would build very few parking spaces, and the ones there are built would be reserved for car-sharing.

According to Schingler, many Embassy residents are in "co-living" for the long haul. But could collaborative housing really catch on on a wider scale?

That’s certainly the intention. "We're not trying to build isolationist, internally focused communes out in the middle of nowhere; we're rebuilding cities. It's how our generation likes to work, and it's how I think we like to live," Schingler told the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a recent piece in Wired, Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan pointed to co-living as an example of online communities taking physical shape. In order for that to happen, the traditional boundaries of physical living spaces would necessarily be altered. Schingler's vision already sees very little distinction between work and play—on any given Sunday, a housemate studying behavioral economics could be experimenting with seating arrangements at dinner. 

So you can easily picture co-living groups like the Embassy further fueling today's plugged-in expectations that one must be "on" all the time. The home then becomes a 24/7 lab where you’re either busy chasing your own curiosities or satisfying someone else’s. Even for a lot of us Millennials, that sort of environment can quickly become too much.

Top image: A Google Maps Street View of the Embassy house in San Francisco. 

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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