Coliving: The Ideal Living Solution During a Pandemic

What is the ideal living environment during a pandemic? When so much of what we take for granted is immediately taken away from us, what living solutions can best respond to our new list of wants and needs? These are complex questions with complex answers. The ideal living solution can vary quite drastically based on the specific wants and needs of each person.

For the group of people who have been able to keep their jobs, they might just want some way to interact with others after months of social distancing. The group that has been laid off from their jobs wants a more affordable place to stay while finding a new source of income. Yet another group is mainly concerned with safety over any social or economic needs, and just wants a clean and secure living environment.

While the order of priorities might be different for each individual, in the end our economic, social, and safety needs are quite similar. Particularly during this global pandemic, we all prefer a living space with relatively low rent, a social support system, and a place where we feel safe.

Below I’ll make the case that Coliving communities, when compared with traditional living solutions, are better prepared to navigate macro-adversities such as a global pandemic due to economic, social, and safety advantages.

Economic Advantages

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past four months, you’re quite aware that the global economy is reeling. With so much uncertainty, any chance to save money these days can help you sleep easier regardless of your economic status before the pandemic. Luckily for Coliving residents, there are several economic advantages of living in a Coliving community during a pandemic that include lower rents, a healthier relationship with your landlord, and the financial benefits of social capital.

Lower Rents

The first economic advantage of living in a Coliving community during a pandemic is simple: relatively lower rent. One of the biggest housing trends that has enabled the rise of Coliving is the housing affordability crisis in the US and many other countries around the world. Rents have risen so quickly (especially in large urban areas) that almost half of the residents in big cities are cost burdened or paying more than 30% of their income on rent.

Just check out the below graphic found on Common‘s website. You can find similar cost saving charts on many other Coliving operator websites such as Cohaus, StarCity or Hmlet.

Coliving companies aren’t shy about admitting that this lower cost is typically due to a higher density of residents and a smaller square footage of private space (i.e. bedrooms are smaller, common areas bigger). But in times of a global pandemic or economic downturn, the majority of people would much prefer to be paying the total displayed in the left column of the graphic above. When money is tight, $1,200/month in NYC is a whole lot better than $3,000+.

Healthier Tenant-Landlord Relationships

The second economic advantage can be found in the tenant-landlord relationship. Traditionally, the landlord’s job is to provide a physical shelter and the tenant’s job is to send in a check every month – simple as that. If I’m a traditional landlord, I probably don’t have a personal brand to protect and don’t advertise on social media how well you’ll be taken care of if you stay at my properties. When rent comes due, tenants have to pay – period end of discussion.

Whether they know it or not, Coliving operators are fundamentally changing the tenant-landlord relationship. Rather than just give each tenant her keys and say, “good luck, don’t break the washing machine,” the job of Coliving operators is to provide an entire living experience that includes convenience, community, and cost-savings. So when rent comes due and tenants can’t immediately pay (like nearly a third of American renters in April), Coliving operators have a higher incentive to work with tenants to somehow make it work.

I’m not suggesting that Coliving companies shouldn’t collect rent from tenants in the face of a global crisis. They need to bring in money to keep the lights on just like any other business. But due to their highly visible brand image, public promises to take care of their residents, and hopefully a genuine desire to help people, Coliving operators are more likely to do all they can to help tenants develop a plan to pay rent even it’s a few months down the line.

For example when speaking with Rachel Ridgwell from Hmlet’s Community Experience team, she said that Hmlet has waived all late fees, offered rent deferral among other payment plans, and even temporarily moved some residents into more affordable rooms to aid their tenants during this difficult time. In a recent LinkedIn article, Rachel mentioned “we are living in an unprecedented time and we want to do the right thing for the members we serve. Our community has stood by us in the good times, and it’s our turn to stand by them.”

The overarching idea is that if you treat your tenants with respect and give them a great living experience, they’ll treat you with respect as well. Research from TheHouseMonk backs up this claim as higher tenant engagement rates in India actually lead to higher rates of tenants paying rent on time. In summary, living solutions that are able to maintain healthy landlord-tenant relationships can provide economic advantages to both landlords AND tenants.

Greasing the Wheels of Community

The third economic advantage is harder to measure but is nonetheless an important benefit. Many sociologists have studied the economic effects of communities with varying levels of “social capital” or personal connectedness. While there are many definitions of social capital, most of them focus on the value created by social interactions between two or more people.

It’s obviously quite difficult to measure the value of relationships. If your friend buys you lunch for $10 or your neighbor picks up a gallon of milk for you on their way home, that can certainly be valued in monetary terms. But how about the value of having two roommates during a pandemic vs. living in a studio apartment? That’s tough to put a monetary value on.

Yes, social capital can be hard to measure, but many sociologists have documented real ways in which social capital can have tangible economic benefits. From Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: “Social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subject to repeated interactions with fellow citizens, everyday business and social transactions are less costly.”

We might not always realize it, but there is real economic value in a friend picking up groceries for you or keeping an extra key when you lock yourself out of your home. Communities with high levels of social capital also have much higher levels of trust and this leads to lower costs in social transactions. You don’t need to pay for a dog-sitting service when you leave for a few days and you don’t have to spend time recording every little favor and squaring up at the end of each week. The high levels of trust lead to reciprocity and saving precious time and resources that, when added up, can make a big difference particularly during times of crisis.

If people live in close communities that encourage building meaningful relationships, they can reap the benefits of high levels of social capital. If we were to rank which modern living solutions foster communities with the highest levels of social capital, I believe Coliving would come in at the top of the list – and by a wide margin.

Social Advantages

Another basic need this pandemic has made us all acutely aware of is the need for strong social ties. Humans have evolved to be extremely social creatures that crave relationships and we have physical and mental needs to interact with other humans. Fulfilling these social needs only becomes more important during a pandemic.

In my opinion Coliving’s social advantages are the most important advantages of the Coliving model over traditional living solutions. As I’ve written about in the Case for Coliving series, the way we live has changed drastically over the first two decades of the twenty first century. Smart phones and social media have fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other and I believe Coliving can be a powerful tool to ensure that we still maintain healthy social relationships in light of these changes.

As with some of the economic advantages, the social advantages of Coliving can directly be attributed to high levels of social capital. It’s worth mentioning that these advantages can also be present for traditional suburban neighborhoods or apartment buildings that for one reason or another, also have high levels of social capital. Unlike the Coliving model, however, traditional living models are not inherently founded on fostering social capital and therefore are not as likely to reap the benefits.

Resolving Collective Problems

The first social advantage of Coliving during a pandemic is that close-knit communities are better at solving collective action problems when compared to communities that lack close social bonds. If you are familiar with the tragedy of the commons or the free rider problem, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you.

Collective action problems arise when a group of individuals are each incentivized to behave in a way that is contrary to the collective good of the group. For example, paying taxes: if each individual decided whether she paid taxes or not, very few people would actually pay as each individual is incentivized to keep that money for herself.

Decades of research on collective action problems has led to two main approaches to solve them: institutional mechanisms and social norms. According to Putnam in Bowling Alone, collective action problems can be solved “by an institutional mechanism with the power to ensure compliance with the collectively desired behavior.” Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom argued that collective action problems can also be solved by “evolved norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.”

In our example of paying taxes, the institutional mechanism is the government-backed legal requirement to pay taxes and punishment if an individual does not. Collective problems present in living environments, however, can generally best be solved by social norms. Such problems can range from keeping neighborhoods safe to ensuring social distancing rules are followed during a pandemic.

For keeping neighborhoods safe, many neighborhoods form “neighborhood watch” programs where residents take turns patrolling the area. Social norms and high levels of trust amongst neighbors ensure that everybody does their part and as a result, the neighborhood is safer.

While I don’t have the data to back up this claim, I would bet that residents living in buildings/areas with higher levels of social capital are more likely to follow social distancing precautions. If I have strong social bonds with the residents that share my building, there might be social consequences of breaking the rules. If I hosted a party with outside residents despite a building rule that no outside guests are allowed, I risk damaging close friendships.

On the other hand, if I live in a building where I don’t know my neighbor’s name, there is no social pressure to follow the rules. Individuals are incentivized to act in their own self-interest that results in damaging the collective good of the group. In other words, the closer the community the more likely they are to successfully solve collective problems.

Community, also known as a group of people with high social capital, is a foundational pillar of Coliving locations around the world. We can therefore safely conclude that the Coliving model creates groups that are better at resolving collective problems.

More Empathy – We’re in this Together

The second social advantage for Coliving residents during a pandemic is the benefit of living in a more empathetic community. Particularly in highly uncertain times with a lack of social interactions, living in a community with a “we’re all in this together” attitude can have numerous positive effects.

A variety of academic studies have shown that the more connected we feel to people, the more empathy we have for others. It follows that if Coliving residents feel more connected to each other than those in traditional living arrangements, Coliving residents are more likely to help one another, particularly during the tough times.

The numerous Co-Liv virtual meetups and webinars I have participated in over the past few months have confirmed the above claim. One of the strongest examples comes from a discussion I recently had with Caterina Maiolini from London’s Startuphome.

Acting as the “House Mayor” at Startuphome in London, Cate and her community had a very proactive response to the virus. Cate had a chat with all of her residents in early March and they all agreed to start putting safety measures in place a few weeks before the official lockdown began. Perhaps as expected, Cate described the first period of the lockdown to be “a shock to the emotional system” for her and her twelve housemates.

After the initial shock (and a period of quarantine to ensure nobody was sick), however, the Startuphome community regained momentum and began viewing the quarantine period as an opportunity rather than a problem. Cate said that she and her members have used this period as “a time to dig deeper in personal relationships” than they had before.

Community quarantine events at Startuphome

As you can see above, the Startuphome community has gotten quite creative in ways to stay social during the pandemic. Board game nights, Mastermind brainstorming sessions, rooftop lunches, and even a coordinated effort to turn a corner of their rooftop into a gym/fitness center. The close-knit community that existed at Startuphome before the pandemic has helped this Coliving community (and I’m sure others) to thrive with the “we’re all in this together” mindset.

Perhaps the most telling part of our conversation came when Cate spoke about a new potential resident that was hoping to move in this month. The potential resident is currently living in a studio apartment in London and said the first few weeks of the lockdown weren’t too bad, but that the past 3-4 weeks of isolation had been horrible. It’s situations of intense social isolation like this that have made urban renters even more aware of the need for community. The global Coliving industry seems to think this trend will lead to an increase in demand for Coliving, and I for one completely agree.

Lastly, I heard from Cate and numerous other operators that residents are constantly looking out for one another. In fact, Clara Arroyave, CEO/co-founder of PlaceMe in Boston, even mentioned that some residents had reached out to her to see how the business was doing and if they could help in anyway. You know you’ve built a lasting community when your customers reach out in times of crisis to help.

Safety Advantages

Perhaps the most obvious need during a global pandemic, humans want to feel safe. Since the danger in a pandemic is caused by an “invisible enemy,” it can sometimes be difficult to feel completely safe. It’s a very stressful scenario for everybody regardless of where you’re living, but some living solutions can provide safety advantages that will improve both your mental and physical health.

Below we’ll look at two ways in which living solutions can ensure their residents remain safe during a pandemic. First, we’ll cover how superior technology (often used by Coliving operators) can increase safety and create effective communication channels that are crucial for maintaining a safe living environment. Then we’ll dive into the proven biological health advantages of living in close-knit communities.

Technology Advantage

Coliving operators around the globe are embracing technology to improve their living experience in a multitude of ways. During the current pandemic, many Coliving companies are fully utilizing security, communication, and digital technologies to ensure their residents stay safe.

One of the security technology companies that is trusted by many of the biggest players in the Coliving industry is SALTO. Their smart lock solutions allow many Coliving operators to completely control who has access to which parts of the building – even down to the minute. Operators can know when residents are leaving the building and ensure that everybody in their building is following social distancing guidelines.

I recently had the chance to speak with Christine McDannell, founder of Kndrd, a Coliving technology provider. Christine mentioned a variety of ways that Coliving operators are utilizing communication technology to better respond to the pandemic and keep their residents safe.

For example, many of the large Coliving operators around the world have their own mobile app that allows residents to pay their rent, submit maintenance requests, and get updates about social events. In times of crisis, Coliving operators can use the app to send important safety messages to their residents and updates on new rules/regulations through push notifications. Christine mentioned that Kndrd also allows the creation of polls on Coliving message boards so that residents can vote on things like “can I bring two friends in the building for dinner next Friday?”

As the new living solution on the block, Coliving companies have been quick to adapt to new innovations such as virtual tours. Visit the websites of Quarters, Ollie, and Hmlet among many others, and potential residents will be able to complete full virtual tours of their potential apartment/house from the safety of their own home. During Singapore’s strict lockdown, operators like Hmlet are even delivering keys through taxi applications and virtually moving new residents in through video chatting applications.

Health Advantages

While researching the Coliving industry over the past year, my favorite discovery has been the numerous proven health advantages of living in a well-functioning community. It’s nothing short of amazing and I think it’s something that should be talked about much, much more.

In 2010 three psychology researchers from BYU and UNC completed a meta-analysis of 148 studies to determine the extent to which social relationships influence risk for mortality. The 148 studies had over 300,000 participants combined and included data from all over the globe. Instead of trusting one study that could be biased for a variety of factors, this meta-analysis was conducted to find the real, scientifically observed relationship between social ties and mortality.

The study found that participants with stronger social relationships had a “50% increased likelihood of survival.” In other words, “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.”

When I first discovered these stats, I was shocked. All of us have been told since we were kids that smoking, drinking, and obesity present sizable health risks. I was never told, however, that if I didn’t maintain strong social bonds with other humans that I wouldn’t live as long. As it turns out having more face-to-face interactions can actually extend your life.

More evidence can be found in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, a book that studies the world’s “Blue Zones” (the societies around the world that have the highest life expectancy) in order to discover the factors behind their longevity. In one of the blue zones, Okinawa, Japan, they discovered that the Japanese community concept called Moai is one of the main reasons behind why an Okinawan woman on average lives eight years longer than an American woman. These moais act as small community circles that meet on a weekly basis starting in childhood and at times extend into the 100s.

Other studies show that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and strong social bonds can actually boost our immune systems and help us better recover from disease. I think it’s safe to say that during a global pandemic I would much rather live in an environment that will boost my immune system as high as possible.

Whether we are living through a pandemic or not, I believe we need much more attention around the fact that if executed correctly, Coliving will improve the physical and mental health of its residents.

Conclusion

A lot of my friends have reached out to me recently to ask things like “I assume the global pandemic is horrible for the Coliving industry, right?” On the surface it’s easy to see why people would think this: Coliving is a business that advertises bringing people together for more human interactions – not a great idea during social distancing.

However, hopefully the analysis above has shed light on the fact that successfully operating a living environment during a pandemic is multi-faceted. I won’t argue that higher density living arrangements and those designed with more shared living areas are better for a pandemic – but those are just a few of many, many factors.

Economically, Coliving’s relatively affordable rents and superior landlord-tenant relationship make it better than traditional living solutions. Socially, Coliving communities are better prepared to solve collective problems and higher levels of social capital and empathy make for a more comfortable living climate. Safety wise, superior security, communication, and digital technologies combined with the health advantages of strong social bonds again make Coliving the ideal living solution for a pandemic.

If you’re still not convinced, check out the Coliving Insights Coronavirus page or any of the below articles that contain similar diagnoses of Coliving during Covid-19:

  1. Fox Business: Coronavirus pandemic leads to increased demand for co-living spaces
  2. Multi-Housing News: Co-Living’s Reaction to the COVID-19 Pandemic
  3. Propmodo: Co-Living Through a Pandemic
  4. Globe St: Where Will Co-Living Land Post Pandemic?
  5. ArchDaily: Social Distancing in a Social House: How Co-living Communities are Designed to Handle COVID-19
  6. Serviced Apartment News: Snapshot: urban living – the hospitality and real estate winners and losers
  7. Up(st)ART Creative’s response to the virus: The Coliving Code Show

As always thanks for stopping by Coliving Corner and please reach out with any comments or thoughts about the ideal living solution during a global pandemic.

One Comment on “Coliving: The Ideal Living Solution During a Pandemic

  1. The research here is interesting and the social aspect being observed here makes perfect sense. You hope that the more social equity you build with others actually turns into friendships of varying degrees. Not a lot of history to base today’s needs during a pandemic too but all makes sense. The economic examples could add the line items of your later discussions as part of comparable “value” proposition.

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