Urban planning and co-living: friend or foe?
Since co-living is still a relatively new sector, figuring out how to develop co-living spaces is still quite the challenge. Is it easier in terms of planning regulations and costs to develop purpose-built ground-up sites such as Ollie’s future Long Island City project, or is it easier to reconvert old hotels or manors into a rural collaborative space like Coconat outside of Berlin? Either way, the development of co-living spaces is dependent on the zoning regulations and public policies of specific cities and countries, and the value of the real estate market in those areas as well.
This can make developing co-living spaces complicated, since the model is often a mix between residential (private studios), commercial (paid services and spaces such as co-working hot desks and events rooms available to purchase from people outside of the co-living space) and sometimes even manufacturing (with the addition of a makerspace into the co-living space, for example). These hybrid spaces don’t fit into traditional zoning regulations and it makes it hard for co-living initiatives to approve their spaces for construction and/or operations. Ana Paula Emidio, PUREHOUSE LAB’s Policy Research Forum Coordinator, argues that:
“In terms of policy, the biggest planning limitations to co-living spaces can be found in the zoning regulations of cities… the co-living concept still does not exactly fit into conventional zoning rules, making it even more challenging to find a common ground of where and how ordinances can be applied to this context.”
One example of planning limitations for the development of co-living spaces are Single Room Occupancies (SROs) that force residents renting an individual bedroom in an apartment with shared kitchens and/or bathrooms to co-sign a single lease for the entire unit. A law in New York City in the 1950s prohibited the creation of new SROs and states that no more than three unrelated people can live in the same household at the same time. Since co-living spaces usually have over a dozen unrelated individuals staying in a private room and using shared kitchens and bathrooms, co-living spaces like Common have already had troubles complying with New York City’s Department of Buildings’ Building Code and Housing Maintenance Code. These kinds of limitations do not only occur in New York City, and it is one of the reasons why the co-living sector in cities like Paris is taking a while to develop. Some policy innovations exist, and what the sector needs is more flexibility and ingenuity that allows for hybrid spaces to thrive without the constraints of strict, decades-old housing codes and zoning regulations.
Innovative development approaches to co-living: a multidisciplinary effort
In order to achieve more flexibility in the development of co-living spaces it will require more communication and collaboration between co-living operators, public authorities and real estate developers. An increase of dialogue between these actors about the value co-living spaces can add to their urban ecosystems and the fabric of local neighborhoods is needed in order for planning authorities and real estate developers to become more familiar with the concept. Jonathan Imme, founder of The Arrivers in Berlin, emphasizes this point in a recent article for Ouishare about the capacity for shared living concepts to ‘make cities great again’:
“So we need to push for cities to start considering the positive effects that co-living and co-housing can bring. It shouldn’t be about the money but regarded as projects that move the city forward, truly promote diversity and foster stronger social links… Our policies need to incentivize real estate developers to create housing concepts and frameworks that foster more people sharing spaces, for instance where not everyone has their own guest room that only gets used twice a month. So if cities make it more attractive for real-estate owners to develop co-living and cohousing concepts it could really be a game changer.”
In addition to a lack of understanding surrounding the economic, social and cultural capital of these hybrid spaces, Imme goes on to talk about the difficulty of finding affordable and available land and the issues that come with needing to refurbish existing apartment stocks to accommodate the needs of shared living spaces. Our Policy Research Forum Coordinator Ana Paula Emidio makes similar arguments when discussing the planning limitations for developing co-living spaces, and calls for the need for housing policies to go beyond the single-family/multi-family binary that is currently all too familiar in cities around the world. Ana Paula also argues for the importance of flexibility around allowing unrelated individuals to share units, promoting high-density micro-units, having adjustable rental agreements and requirements and incorporating sustainable practices and design implementations into co-living spaces, which would ultimately allow for potential tax exemptions for co-living operators and developers. Implementing more sustainable practices into the values and infrastructure of co-living initiatives can also be a way to create more harmony in the discussions between operators and planning authorities.
Joining forces with traditional developers and planning authorities
During an interview with Jonathan Imme in the OuiShare article Coliving on the Rise: Can House-Sharing Make Cities Great Again?, Imme argues that:
“We need to join forces to convince City Councils and real estate developers that co-living is the future. It is both financially interesting and makes the city more connected, increasing diversity and helping cross-finance people who can’t afford to live in cities anymore.”
This stance emphasizes the arguments made in the previous section, and there have been a few examples of collaborations between traditional real estate developers, planning authorities and co-living operators that have proven to be successful. For example, Ollie has been partnering with multiple developers such as National Development in South End Boston and Simon Baron Development and Quadrum Global in Long Island City to develop ground-up sites that will be co-operated and co-owned between the partners. As of late November 2017, however, Ollie’s project with National Development in South End Boston still requires Boston Planning and Development Agency approval, reiterating the need for more multidisciplinary partnerships and conversations.
In another case of successful dialogue between co-living operators and planning authorities, Mokrin House in rural Serbia just recently received an award from the local municipality in which the space is located, the City of Kikinda, for promoting modern and alternative living in rural surroundings. This award, the “Captain Misa Anastasijevic”, places them in a position to receive a similar award on the national level, along with prominent enterprises, brands, economists and institutions from around Serbia. Coconat recently won a similar prize from the State of Brandenburg in Germany, as the ‘Demographics Example of the Month’.
In more urban environments, an innovative zoning code recently adopted by commercial-residential ‘e-lofts’ in Alexandria, Virginia, falls under a commercial residential mixed-use high-density (CRMU-H) zoning, a dual-use concept that allows “businesses to write-off up to 49.9 percent of their home office space if located in their apartment unit”. This means that individuals and/or companies can either rent an apartment, rent office space or do both with any of the 200 units in the e-loft complex.
When asked about innovative housing regulations, PUREHOUSE LAB’s Policy Research Forum Coordinator, Ana Paula Emidio also refers to Santa Cruz’s Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Development program, which allows for the addition of separate units to pre-existing homes, which include a “separate kitchen, sleeping, and bathroom facilities, attached or detached from the primary residential unit on a single-family lot”. These ADU’s are an opportunity to increase the amount of affordable rental housing, provide homeowners with a chance to supplement mortgage payments and offer new conditions for shared living and small-scale neighborhood compatible housing.
The importance for dialogue between multiple actors in regards to the development of co-living spaces is becoming more and more clear, and there is potential for the values and objectives of co-living operators to clearly align with the visions of city planners and authorities. In order for the co-living sector to remain pertinent, it must make strides towards more sustainable and affordable practices, which will in turn make them more visible in the eyes of local municipalities and planners. Co-living operators need to put a genuine emphasis on affordability by partnering with city councils, policymakers and national housing programs, whom could help by providing funding for co-living spaces to become housing schemes that also provide social housing options, for example. Co-living operators now have the choice whether or not they want to become agents of gentrification that only seek profitable returns, or whether or not they have a genuine community and social purpose that aligns with other citymaking actors that strive towards sustainable and positive resilience and change.