Let’s keep the facts straight…“the ‘units’ are not really affordable,” reads a statement from SV@Home, a local affordable housing policy group. “[T]hey are not rent-restricted, and often charge rents well beyond the reach of lower-income households.”
The co-living startup Starcity plans to build an 800-unit, 18-story “dorm for adults” to help affordably house Silicon Valley’s booming workforce.
Jon Dishotsky likes to tell the story of how he grew up in a co-housing compound, of a sort. His father, a Stanford professor, hosted dozens of students over the years, who paid low rent and cycled in and out of his suburban Palo Alto home. They’d share meals with his family and pitch in to take care of Dishotsky when his parents were busy. They helped build a zip line. It was a kind of ad-hoc community; he’s still in touch with some of these ex-students.
Dishotsky, the co-founder/CEO of the co-housing start-up Starcity, is now working to fill America’s housing-strapped cities with a scaled-up version of his childhood idyll. Since launching in 2016, the company has broken ground on seven developments in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In most Starcity buildings, renters get a furnished 130- to 220-square-foot bedroom and share a communal kitchen and living space. In a addition to a “generous bathroom to room ratio,” the company touts a range of Millennial-friendly amenities, including an honor library, “locally sourced foliage,” and Bob Ross painting nights. Rents range from $1,400 to $2,400 a month. “We’ll make the living arrangements delightful and sustainable so that people can stay in cities long-term,” Starcity’s website promises. “We will do this by redefining the meaning of home.”
That definition is about to get a whole lot larger. Last week, the company got the green light to start work on its biggest project—an 18-story building with 803 units in the heart of downtown San Jose, a city in the crosshairs of California’s housing crisis. This Titanic of co-housing is set to be the biggest shared-living-space-cum-mega-dorm-for-emerging-adults ever conceived. (Dishotsky pushed back on my reference to the doomed liner. “We haven’t built the building yet!” he wrote me in a follow-up email. “And I won’t drive us into an iceberg. It will be built to standards beyond code.”)
Rents will start in the low-$2,000s, including furnishings, utilities, WiFi, and rapport-building building-wide events.
Starcity is just one of a growing cadre of startups offering variations on this communal-living theme. Bungalow has converted more than 300 single-family homes to co-housing spaces in 10 U.S. cities. Common offers shared suites in six cities. WeLive, owned by the co-working goliath WeWork, rents studio and one-to-four bedroom apartments as well as communal ones in New York City and Washington D.C. And The Collective, a global brand, has high-rise co-housing complexes in London, New York, and soon, Chicago.
These outfits all seem to speak the same aesthetic language. Their sleek promotional materials scream “Instagrammable Friends episode, but more diverse,” or perhaps just “Coke commercial sponsored by Wayfair.” Their roots, however, lie someplace older and grubbier: the low-budget single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, of the early 20th century. Just as industrial cities looked to SROs and flophouses to shelter their booming young urban workforce, Starcity is making buildings that can accommodate the live-work-play (but crucially, always-work) demands of a new labor class.
Starcity considers itself distinct from SROs, however, in how it uses each building, as Curbed SF reported: “95 percent of the usable square footage in an SRO is renters’ rooms, with the remaining five percent mostly hallways. By comparison, a Starcity building is about 65 percent bedrooms, and 20 percent of the building is dedicated to ‘communal spaces and kitchens.’” And renters commit to living there longer than the transient characters who once bunked at week-to-week boarding houses: More than 70 percent of tenants want leases longer than month-to-month, Dishotsky told Curbed.
But this reinvention of an old housing model comes with new logistical hurdles. High-density co-housing buildings aren’t hotels, and they’re not quite traditional multi-family apartments. To break ground on the San Jose mega-project, Starcity had to work with the city to change local zoning codes.