When Your Roommates Are A Community

Co-living spaces are a growing solution to loneliness.

Author by Sarah Treleaven
Credit: Twisha Patni

There are fewer lonelier scenes than marking a birthday all alone. No one to raise a glass and make a toast, no one to bring in a chocolate cake topped with burning candles, and no one to take inventory with about the year that passed and the one that’s about to begin.

But at Starcity’s co-living spaces, that doesn’t really happen. The Bay Area buildings have a staff member who arranges birthday parties and ensures that milestones are properly observed. And that’s not all: He also drops off care packages to sick tenants and organizes events like wine nights and beach volleyball. “We give people the opportunity to meet each other by offering them forums to engage,” says Tom Kaser, Starcity’s community director. “A lot of our spaces are designed around common areas, like an upstairs media room where people watch movies together or a kitchen where people cook together.”

The net result, says Kaser, is the blossoming of close relationships. “I’ve seen friendships really grow,” he says. “I’ve seen strangers move in and then move out to live together.”

An increasing number of co-living projects are either planned or underway in cities across North America. Co-living is frequently pitched as a remedy to unaffordable urban housing or a commitment to minimalism, but there’s another reason people are increasingly interested in sharing living quarters with complete strangers: the growing sense of loneliness sweeping the Western world, particularly in major urban centers.

A Cigna study released in May referred to loneliness in America as “an epidemic,” finding that over 40 percent of respondents sometimes or always feel that they are isolated from others and that their relationships are not meaningful, that almost 50 percent have no meaningful daily social interactions. A separate 2017 study found that the number of Americans who report having no close friends has tripled since 1985, with the Millennial cohort reporting the steepest declines.

This wave of loneliness has been attributed to a number of factors: an over-dependence on social media; a reduction in face-to-face contact; an increasingly mobile work world where it’s now common to land a job place where you have no existing ties; and a dramatic increase in the number of solo households.

Enter co-living buildings, which emphasize not just more-affordable rent but also a sense of community built through shared kitchens and “family dinners.”

WeLive, the co-living project launched by WeWork, now has locations in New York City and Washington, DC (with several more planned), and describes their mandate as “a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.”

OpenDoor, which offers several co-living spaces in Portland, Berkeley and Oakland, offers backyard fire pits, jam sessions and shared “creative empowerment,” all while referencing the importance of tribes, clans and villages.

And Vonder, a new co-living brand, is planning to introduce 10 residences in Berlin, London and Dublin next year. Created to accommodate internationals relocating around the world for tech gigs, freelance work or even grad school, Vonder promises brunch clubs and to introduce recent transplants to charming locals.

Group brunching is nice, but Migerta Ndrepepaj, who lives in a Starcity building, has learned that she can lean on her neighbors for greater support. When her father died six months ago, Ndrepepaj says the co-living community rallied around her. “Assuming you’re living with people that you have chosen and who have chosen you, there isn’t a moment when your happiness or sadness goes unnoticed,” she says.

Arram Sabeti, the CEO of ZeroCater (which arranges office catering logistics) and member of a 10-person co-living space in San Francisco called The Archive. “The people I live with are family, and we support each other, talk with each other, help each other and ask for advice,” says Sabeti. “I didn’t exactly think of myself as a lonely person before, but I found that having a set of people to come home to, people whose company you really like, in my mind that’s one of the best life improvements you can make for yourself.”

In a recent TED Talk, Seattle-based architect Grace Kim made the argument that loneliness can be the result of our built environment and that cohousing might be the antidote to that loneliness. But Kim was referring to a different model: intentional communities where people tend to stick around for the long haul, building up crucial social capital, and she questions whether these newer, hipper co-living arrangements are fostering genuine kinship.

“Co-living has some of the same amenities of cohousing like common spaces, but there’s usually regular turnover,” says Kim. “If you get into a fight with a neighbor, you can either ignore them or move out. It’s not the same long-term investment in building community, resilience and interdependence that offsets loneliness. It might seem like you’ve got a bunch of new friends to go to bars with, but are they really going to be there to help you with chemo or mortgage payments?”

Of course, simply surrounding yourself with more people isn’t necessarily the way to combat feelings of loneliness or isolation. Plenty of people, after all, are lonely in close proximity to spouses, parents or coworkers. Jeremy Nobel, faculty at the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and founder of The Unlonely Project, says that it’s the quality of the connection that matters. “Shared time with someone only really delivers on relieving loneliness if an authentic connection is made,” he says. “But it can make a difference if you come home and someone really wants to hear about your day.”

Co-living can’t promise quality relationships but it does offer an entrée into making those kinds of friendships, a starting point for finding your people after you’ve moved beyond the easy new connections made in school or even at work, or once friends start pairing off and becoming less available.

“When you have a more traditional apartment, there’s no one to talk to and you just come home and put on the TV until you go to bed,” says Kaser. “We have a lot of events at Starcity, but the best part is when you come home, find some people making dinner in the kitchen and have a glass of wine with them.”

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Co-living spaces fight loneliness.

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