The cost of living across the US is on the rise, and as wages fail to keep up, Americans living in major cities are at an increased risk of being priced out of their homes and neighborhoods. One trendy, widely touted solution for the problem is all-inclusive co-living spaces, which have been popping up in cities around the country.
Common is one such co-living company, with spaces in New York, San Francisco, DC, and Chicago. Started in 2016, Common’s tenants pay a set price for a furnished private room and swanky shared spaces for living, working, and entertaining. Each Common space has the feel of a hipster dream home, furnished to the nines with funky vintage rugs, mid-century modern furniture, gleaming white subway tile and shiny new appliances. In addition to the digs, the rent in Common homes includes in-house cleaners, magically replenished household supplies (toilet paper, olive oil, salt, soap), free high-speed WiFi and laundry. It's a veritable wet dream for the house-poor millennial who may be considering living in a literal shed.
According to a 2017 study from Zillow, “30 percent of working-age adults—aged 23 to 65—live in doubled-up households, up from a low of 21 percent in 2005 and 23 percent in 1990.” And this is the demographic Common is seeking to attract, said CEO Brad Hargreaves.
“We want to provide a better option for the 65 million Americans who live with roommates,” Hargreaves told VICE. “We’ve seen an increasing disparity between rents and income where rents just keep going up, and there’s been wage stagnation for the better part of 20 years. We started Common to keep the good parts of living with roommates—the social aspect and the affordability—but get rid of as many of the annoyances as we can control.”
Common markets itself as a way for young people to save money, but when it comes to affordability, its pricing may not hit the mark. Take their newest space, Common Racine. It's a 10-unit building that recently opened in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, which is currently at the epicenter of the city-wide fight against gentrification.
Despite the efforts of community advocates and activists, Pilsen is teetering on the edge of becoming the next Wicker Park or Logan Square, two uber-hip and increasingly unaffordable Northside neighborhoods, where finding a one-bedroom apartment for less than $2,000 is still possible, but unlikely.
But Pilsen’s not there yet. While rent prices have been rising steadily over the past 10 years—displacing more than 10,000 Latinx residents as a result—when compared with similar neighborhoods on the north side of the city, Pilsen is still a relatively affordable, family-oriented neighborhood. A search on any apartment-hunting site will yield ample one-bedrooms for under $1,100, two-bedrooms for under $1,400, and even entire houses for less than $2,000.
Hargreaves claims Common’s per-room pricing is calculated by taking the market rate for a studio apartment in the area, and chopping off “20 to 30 percent.” If that’s the case, they may want to double-check the math for their Pilsen space. At Common Racine, one room in a four-bedroom unit starts at $975, and goes up to $1,200, depending on the size of the room.
That might seem like a good deal if you look at the price comparison on their website and literally nowhere else. Common would like residents to believe they’d be paying a total of $1,360 out of their own pockets in order to rent a room in an apartment in Pilsen, or nearly $2,000 on a studio. While these prices would look fantastic to someone in Brooklyn or San Francisco, they’re nowhere near market rate in south side Chicago.
“These are not real prices, they’re inflated,” said Byron Sigcho, director of the Pilsen Alliance, a community organization dedicated to social justice and affordable housing, founded in 1998. “In Pilsen, the median household income is $34,000, and they’re asking people to pay $1,000 for a room. It’s gross inequality.”
Sigcho is no stranger to the building where Common Racine now lives. In fact, the Pilsen Alliance used to rent an office in it, back when it was a community center called Casa Aztlan. For decades, the Casa Aztlan building—covered in colorful murals celebrating Mexican heroes and heritage—was a beacon of hope for residents of Pilsen. It was a place where immigrants could find advocates, where residents could take GED classes, and where community organizers held public events.
But in 2013, Casa Aztlan lost the building to foreclosure, and for years, it sat empty, a shell of its former self. In June 2017, the Casa Aztlan building was thrust back into public view when the developer who bought the building ordered contractor Morris Gershengorin to paint over its iconic murals in favor of what one Facebook commenter called “gentrification blue.” To add insult to injury, Gershengorin posted a photo of the project on social media, along with the expertly tone-deaf caption “#makingchicagogreatagain.”
The community reaction was swift and immediate. Sigcho and the Pilsen Alliance organized meetings and protests and contacted the media, and under mounting public pressure, developer Andy Ahitow agreed to repaint the mural and sponsor a children’s art program in the space.
But it wasn’t really about the mural. What the Pilsen Alliance was really looking for was assurance from Ahitow that his company, City Pads LLC, would follow Pilsen’s 21 percent affordable housing mandate when developing the Casa Aztlan space. While the city of Chicago has a (largely theoretical) 10 percent affordable housing mandate for new developments, activists in Pilsen successfully doubled that number in 2005. But this mandate, touted as a win for more than a decade by community leaders like Pilsen alderman Danny Solis, has yet to be honored by a single new development.
Initially, Ahitow seemed supportive of the mandate.
“As discussed,” he wrote in a July 2017 email to the Pilsen Alliance, “we are committed to partnering with the Pilsen community to build new projects that will include at least 21-percent of affordable housing units.” But ultimately, the Common space has no units that fit that criteria.
“We support Pilsen’s 21-pecent affordable housing initiative, which applies to up-zoned properties, and would absolutely comply if we pursue an up-zoning in the neighborhood in the future,” Ahitow told VICE. But both he and Hargreaves made it clear to VICE that the Common community is focused on residents who make between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, a market the latter believes is “underserved in the housing market.” It's a demographic that makes more than the neighborhood's median household income of $34,000. To Sigcho, it’s just another sign developers like Ahitow aren’t interested in preserving Pilsen’s culture or history.
“The honest truth is that these developers do not want families here,” said Sigcho. “They want to create their own reality within the neighborhood, and not cater to what’s already here.”
The new normal created by these kinds of co-living spaces is in no way unique to Pilsen. Common has other properties in Chicago, as does QUARTERS, a similarly-priced luxury co-living company with dozens of locations around the world. London has its own versions of the same model, “solutions” to the city’s affordable housing crisis that only exacerbate the problem they claim to be solving. Tech workers in the Bay Area are paying upwards of $2,000 a month to live in bunk beds in The Negev, a roach-infested frat house for grownups, which used to be a Baptist homeless shelter. And residents of New York City’s Crown Heights, a neighborhood currently deep in the throes of gentrification, can pay $1,800 a bedroom for Common accommodations.
Sitting at the conference table in the Pilsen Alliance’s small office space on 18th Street, Sigcho cited the irony of Common Racine’s online marketing, which touts the neighborhood as a “cultural center.”
“People move to Pilsen because they like the things the developers are working to change,” he said. “They like that it’s family-oriented. They like the ice cream trucks and the tamale ladies and the taco stands and the murals. But these unreal prices are eroding the social fabric of what makes Pilsen so special.”
“In a couple years, everything they’re advertising to sell these places won’t be here anymore.”
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