It's been only four months since Common, "flexible, community-driven housing" launched in Crown Heights, but the company is already growing. Its second Crown Heights home opened on Albany Avenue in early January, and this week, Common announced its biggest project yet: a 20,000-square-foot home in Williamsburg, on South 3rd and Havemeyer Streets, which is set to debut in the spring. The complex, which has 12 suites spread out over four buildings, can accommodate as many as 51 people, each of whom gets their own room, but share kitchens and other spaces.
"I think a lot of people hear, 'Oh, living with roommates,' and they think a dingy dorm room," says Brad Hargreaves, Common's founder, during a recent tour of the new space. "We're trying to turn over that expectation."
Granted, the dorm comparison isn't too far off the mark. Common is one of a handful of companies advancing a theory of so-called "co-living," or sharing space (if not bedrooms) with a group of strangers. Common residents inhabit a home with anywhere from 19 to 50 other people, depending on which building they reside in. While residents get their own rooms, bathrooms are shared, and essentials like bed linens, paper towels, and toilet paper are provided. Each of Common's three buildings also comes equipped with Wi-Fi, and there are communal areas (a game room in one building; a lounge in another) where residents can congregate. Which, when taken as a whole, sounds…well, dorm-like.
But Hargreaves doesn't see it quite that way. "So many people in the city have this experience of moving in with random roommates," he says, using his own experience of finding an apartment on Craigslist when he first moved to New York as an example. "This is how people are living in the city anyway. Why don't we just acknowledge that and create something, both a product and a service layer, that are really designed for that need?"
Hence, Common: The company acts as landlord, broker (though residents don't pay a broker's fee), property manager, events facilitator, decorator—you name it, they probably have a hand in making it happen. Residents apply for apartments online, and Common is responsible for processing applications and conducting background checks; it also handles all of the lease paperwork, and will fill vacancies should a roommate decide to leave or move to another Common building (which they can do at no additional cost). This allows for more flexibility than a traditional apartment situation: Residents sign month-to-month leases, and after 30 days, can vacate with as little as 24 hours notice.
"We're taking each of those problems that make roommate situations mediocre and creating a great experience around it," Hargreaves explains. To that end, the company provides furniture, mattresses (from like-minded start-up Casper), and artwork for its rooms. Each building has ample laundry facilities, and a cleaning service comes through weekly to attend to the common areas; residents also don't pay for utilities.
Since it launched, the company has garnered its share of critics, from those who've compared it unfavorably to a college dorm or a hippy-dippy commune, to the city's Department of Buildings, which was briefly investigating whether or not the buildings functioned as illegal SROs. The latter, at least, was cleared up: Common residents who share a suite also share a lease for their particular suite, though the terms of those leases are flexible; in an SRO situation, the rooms are rented individually. It ultimately was not issued DOB violations.
Then there's the price of living in a Common building: Individual rooms begin at $1,500 for Common's Albany Avenue space, and $1,800 for its Pacific Street and Williamsburg homes; some rooms (including rooms for couples, which are being rolled out at the Williamsburg complex) can be even more. In Crown Heights, where Common has two houses, the average rent for a studio apartment is around $1,600.
But for Hargreaves, Common has one distinct advantage over studio living (that also makes the extra price worth it): the built-in community. "One of the biggest, most frustrating things I felt when moving to New York City is that you don't know your neighbors," he says. "The whole idea of asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar is just foreign. We wanted to create an ecosystem where people know their neighbors, and like their neighbors." Each house has a "community manager," who helps newcomers get to know their neighborhood, and a "house leader," a resident who also facilitates events within the building, such as movie nights or group dinners. Each house also has its own Slack channel (it is a start-up, after all) where residents can communicate about upcoming events, or even plan impromptu get-togethers.
" I don't think it's something that's just gimmicky," says Bryan Bumgardner, a resident of the Albany building who moved in when it opened in January. "They're actually doing something here. For some people it's fine just to get that 'leave whenever you want' lease. But we all made friends in our building really, really easily and people are coming in and out all the time. It's just wonderful."
And the model is clearly garnering interest: More than 1,000 people have applied to live in Common's two existing houses, and many of its current residents recently took the company up on a newly-introduced offer to sign longer-term leases, rather than the standard month-to-month contract. And while many of its residents are new to the city, others are people who've lived in New York for a long time and are seeking a change of scenery—or, in some cases, people who've needed a new, short-term housing situation very quickly. (Think of what happens when you break up with someone that you share an apartment with, and you may see the value in Common's model.)
Which isn't to say that it's a living situation that is, or should be, for everyone. But for the Common team, it's one solution to a common (har) problem for New Yorkers: how am I going to find a place to live, with people I like, that doesn't suck? "I want this to become something that people want to do—something people seek out," says Hargreaves. "People who could have otherwise gone and lived in a studio do this because they want community, and they want the service layer, they want the convenience. I look at it more as an improvement on the [roommate] situation people have been in that has been, in many ways, not a great situation."