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Living in Glorified Dorm Rooms Is the Future of Big City Housing

Priced out of single-bedroom apartments, young people in Canada and the U.S. are turning towards communal co-living.

by Anne Gaviola
Jul 3 2019, 5:05pm

Photo via Roost

For a year and a half, Neil Robles felt like he was playing Russian Roulette with his life when he got behind the wheel of his car. The 24-year old actor and dance choreography teacher was commuting, sometimes more than once a day, from Cambridge, ON, to downtown Toronto, meaning he was stuck in his car for a minimum of two hours a day, five times a week.

“I experienced a lot of near-death experiences where I would fall asleep on the road or I don’t know how I got home,” he said. “During snow storms, it wasn’t nice at all. I ended up just staying on the side of the road one time because I wasn’t comfortable with the amount of snow coming through at night.”

Like many of his peers, Robles felt priced out of Toronto’s housing market, but then he came across a co-living building in Toronto’s entertainment district. These days his commute is measured in seconds, not hours. “It’s like a 30-second walk to where I work usually,” he said.

In mid-March, Robles moved into a co-living rental suite, one of 21 rooms run by Roost, a Toronto startup. The land is owned by individual landlords but managed by Roost and offers an all-inclusive living experience. Tenants have private rooms but share common spaces such as the kitchen and living room. This communal approach to co-habitating is a growing trend in expensive urban centres across North America and it caters to millennial and Gen Z renters looking for an affordable and social alternative to living alone. For a generation stereotyped for its failure to launch into adulthood, the idea of living a dorm life into their 30s can seem like a cruel joke.

Co-living began in Silicon Valley as an antidote to rapidly-rising housing costs which put the squeeze on young workers. Different takes on co-living have sprung up in major U.S. cities including New York and Miami, where offerings range from a kind of dormitory on steroids to something that seems like a Tinder for neighbours. It is also well-established in Europe’s tech and tourist hubs such as Dublin, London, Barcelona, and Amsterdam.

Roost welcomed its first tenants, including Robles, in March. Back then, they whittled the list of dozens of initial applicants down to more than 20 finalists. Today, there is a waiting list of more than 100 people.

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Robles working in his bedroom (Photo via Roost)

Applicants, who are mainly in their 20s, apply online by filling out an extensive questionnaire that delves into schedules, dietary restrictions, and all kinds of personal preferences. If selected, there’s a 20-minute interview, followed by a background investigation that includes a criminal check, employment verification, and a look at the person’s social media.

Maggie Shi, 23, co-founded Roost and is very involved in the daily operations of the relatively new company. Unlike other, more established co-living offerings, she said Roost eschews the frat party vibe—it’s more like match-making for roommates.

“We focus on pairing suitemates more than introducing people to their neighbours down the hall,” she said. “There’s no rooftop yoga or pub crawls. It’s monthly city exploration, picnics, day trips, and axe-throwing. Less of a constant curated social experience.” She said many of their tenants are like Robles, who want the convenience of city living. Gig workers, grad students, young professionals, and newcomers to the city are her main clientele.

Roost, like many of its competitors across North America, offers an all-inclusive price tag which includes wifi, Netflix, utilities, all common supplies like condiments and paper towels, as well as weekly professional cleaning. With seven suites, each connecting three individual rooms in Toronto’s financial and entertainment districts—which are among the least affordable areas in the city—prices range between $1,500 CAD and $1,850 a month.

Shi said for the downtown core neighbourhoods they are in, that works out to monthly savings of $500 to $700, when compared to the cost of a studio apartment or a 2-bedroom split with a roommate. Plus, it comes fully furnished. “You can show up with a suitcase and just move in,” she said.

According to Robles, who searched for a place to rent and talked to multiple agents to help him—to no avail—Roost was faster and more affordable. He blames Toronto’s cutthroat rental market. “I needed to spend $10,000 just to get a place. They were asking for the first five months [of rent] plus last before I could get the place. It’s so competitive that people are willing to do it,” He was able to get through Roost’s intense screening process in a matter of weeks.

The minimum stay is six months and Shi said all of their tenants have told her they’d like to stay longer, although they like the flexibility and the convenience. “Unlike having a roommate, if one of your suitemates moves out, it’s on us to find a replacement,” she said.

Hungry for homes

It makes sense that co-living is taking root in Canada’s two most expensive cities, Toronto and Vancouver, places where the housing market isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for students and recent graduates. But as the cost of living marches higher in other cities, corporations and startups alike have branched out and begun staking their claims.

Node, whose New York-based founders are Canadian, purchased a building in Waterloo, ON, a fast-growing tech hub. The plan is to open a co-living building there this year, with other Canadian cities in their sights.

Common, one of the biggest names in co-living rentals in America, is also coming to Canada. Its first foray outside the U.S. is the Canadian capital, Ottawa, whose population recently surpassed one million. Although its housing market remains relatively affordable, population growth has been steady, increasing 13 percent in the last eight years.

The Ottawa location is slated to welcome the first residents to its giant communal building in 2022. The 20-storey co-living residence will offer 252 beds and access to shared facilities such as a gym and pool.

Brad Hargreaves, Common’s CEO, said there will be an announcement about Toronto soon and said they’re “taking a hard look at Vancouver.” The co-living operator started in 2015 in Brooklyn and has seen major growth in the last year. Common currently runs 800 beds in six cities across the U.S., and plans to open 2,000 bed by year’s end with the goal of reaching 5,000 by late 2020.

Hargreaves said one prevalent misconception is that his company orchestrates the plethora of activities offered to tenants. “Eighty percent of those activities are member-driven, through our app,” he explained.

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Photo via Common

With demand “through the roof,” Common has launched a community living brand for families this year as well. According to Hargreaves, the Kin community will connect families and allow them to share common areas, as well as child-minding and nanny services. He said this is in response to surging housing costs in big cities, as well as childcare costs that have placed a huge burden on families with two working parents—which is the case for 60 percent of American families who rent.

Home suite home

There are many ingredients to successful co-habitation. According to Robles, one is matching him with suitemates who are really clean, because he’s “an OCD-level neat freak.” Another is pairing busy people like himself with other go-getters. His suitemates are a grad student who makes extra money as a waiter, and a tech worker whose days are very full.

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Photo via Roost

“We’re all really busy. Around nighttime, that’s when we see each other, when we’re home,” he said. “We don’t party a lot, so that’s really great for me. We just catch up.” Between teaching, and “ridiculously early call times” that come with his acting gigs, that’s about as much social interaction as he needs from the people he lives with. And it beats coming home to an empty place.

According to Shi, another key to harmonious living is the bathroom allocation. “We have a pretty strict two people per one bathroom ratio. We think that’s the optimal level of comfort, especially if they’re young, working professionals. You don’t want to layer too many people in the bathroom at the same time. We always ask candidates if they like to shower in the morning or at night.”

Plus, the Roost model eliminates one of the most important roommate power struggles of our time: whose turn it is to buy toilet paper. “We focus on small nuances that make living with others painful and remove those awkward conversations,” Shi said.

As perhaps the only way for some young workers to afford to live where they want to in the priciest cities, this in-between housing experience is a stepping stone—or detour, depending on your viewpoint—to full-on adulting.

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