Monday, December 21, 2015

Bay Area Regional Planner - a board game on housing and zoning

While sharing spaces allows existing buildings to house more people, the housing demand in the Bay Area is so great that significant amounts of new construction will be needed as well.  In the next 25 years, around 2 million new homes are needed just to keep up with estimated job and population growth, while even more will be needed to bring rents down.  Where should it go?  Try to figure it out in my latest board game, Bay Area Regional Planner.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Campus CoLiving closes

Campus CoLiving, the company that master leased large houses and then rented out individual rooms, has announced that it is closing at the end of August. The reason?  The business model was not economically viable (it wasn't making money). 

I wrote about them in a previous post.  Let's revisit their business model:  It involved:
- Master leasing houses in high priced neighborhoods
- Charging $1000-2200 for a room (less than what one would pay for a bedroom in a 3-bedroom apartment)
- Providing furniture, hot tub, other amenities, kitchen staples, cleaning services, conflict resolution and social activities. 

It's the extras that probably tipped their business model into the unprofitable zone.  In most communal living spaces, residents do a few hours of cleaning work every week, pool their own money for food and parties, and furniture and amenities are often from the free section of craigslist. 

What is the future of these houses?  It is unknown what will happen when the master leases expire.  If current residents are willing to put in their own time and money to offset the cleaning goodies that Campus used to provide, one option would be for them to negotiate an extension of the lease with the building owner.  On the other hand, maybe the type of people that move there would not live communally without the amenities.  We'll know in a few months...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A highrise of co-ops

With highrise apartments being common, why I don't live in one?  Well, #1) I can't afford to and #2) with most condos being 1 bedroom or 2 bedroom units, there are no options on the market that offer communal living.

The sketches below are an idea that blends communal living (loosely based on Loth in Berkeley) and stacks several communities in a single building.  Compared to a regular tower, there are twice the number of bedrooms, half the per-bedroom cost, and lots of spaces for social interaction.  To address the management issues previous high rise communities of this type faced, this design separates the building into individual communities of 50-90 people: small enough to know everyone, large enough to keep things lively.   One of these 2 to 3 story communities could also be made by remodeling a few floors of an office building.

When a region's most beloved streets are done in a quirky Victorian or Craftsperson style, shouldn't its biggest buildings also be something other than a glass box? 

Click images to enlarge

Design is based on Loth and also previous Victorian highrise design used in the Hanging Gardens of San Francisco story.

Can it work?
This is a rare but not unprecedented building type.  The first batch were built in the 1960s. 

Anhua Lou, Beijing, China - an urban commune built in the 1960s, had a single dining hall for several hundred people.  The common spaces were later divided into regular apartments a changing society led to de-collectivization of living arrangements. 
Rochdale College, Toronto, Canada - built in the 1960s as student housing, this 18-story building had management problems that led to a high vacancy rate.   It was converted into regular apartments in the late 1970s. 

In the last decade, this idea has returned.  Learning from past mistakes, these new communities divide the building into several communities of manageable size.  In addition, the market has changed.  Whereas in the mid 20th century, massive investment in public housing and new suburbs kept housing costs low elsewhere, today, the housing market lacks supply in most desirable cities.  The green movement has also given living small mainstream appeal.  Finally, a rising age of marriage and childbirth means a longer segment of time living single. 

As a result, communal living is no longer just for young hippies or a last resort for the urban poor, it now appeals to a large section of the middle class, and has the potential to take on the attributes of middle class housing: socially acceptable, easy to finance, and boring in a good way. 

Super Co-op, Austin, Texas - a student housing cooperative, built in the 2000s, that has 3 stacked communities.
1532 Harrison, San Francisco - a proposed CoLiving project in San Francisco's SOMA district.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Campus Coliving - large master-leased houses for communal living

Property management company Campus Coliving master-leases large (most are 5 to 9 bedroom) apartments and houses, and then leases out the rooms individually month-to-month.  What makes them different than a typical manager though is the services they provide, which include:
  • Roommate matching
  • Common space furniture, kitchen appliances, and supplies
  • Cleaning service
  • Community mentoring services (such as event planning and communication facilitation)
Campus currently charges $1000-2200 for a private room (all rooms are singles), which is somewhat lower than the going rate for a bedroom in San Francisco.  Their target market is recent college graduates who are relocating to a new city to start their career. 

Education and training
To help people new to communal living learn how to do it, they have a Living with Housemates Guide (PDF) that gives suggestions on decision making, chore sharing, food sharing, guest policies, etc.  It feels similar to the Berkeley Student Cooperative's Owners' Manual (PDF), with a few notable differences. 
  • Whereas the BSC has most policies (such as food budgets and hours of housework per week each resident owes) decided already, Campus leaves many up for each house to decide on their own.  
  • The BSC manual has a section on why co-ops are awesome and the history of cooperatives, while the Campus guide doesn't try to sell the concept - it just dives into the practical stuff.
 On the operations spectrum, Campus seems to be somewhere between student housing and ad-hoc communal houses started independently - indeed, their prototypical resident is probably between those two types of housing.  Cost-wise, it's slightly cheaper than a regular apartment, somewhat more than a ad-hoc community.  The premium comes from the convenience of being able to meet people when new to the area, the common space furniture, and the short leases. 

Any side effects? 
This being the Bay Area, there's been concern on the effects this type of housing might have on housing costs for everyone else, though Campus CEO Tom Currier states that no evictions are taking place when he opens the houses

So who is this type of housing competing against?  Not so much ad hoc communities, who are likely to look for older, cheaper buildings.  Most likely, wealthy couples.  Most families don't have enough people to need 5 or more bedrooms, but there's a certain prestige in having a nice house.  Several working people without children are going to outbid most individuals or couples. 

Is senior coliving next?
While right now the main market for this type of housing is people in their 20s, the serviced house model could also be a great way to do senior housing.  Senior cohousing, where residents have individual kitchens and bathrooms, already exists.  Senior shared houses would be lower cost and also lower the cost of home health care.  The UK is ahead of us on this one, with 10-20 room "boutique nursing homes" recently opening, combining the less institutional atmosphere that comes with a small size with the economies of scale of multiple residents. 

Closing thoughts on household size
Throughout most of history the typical household has had a size of 10-20 people, and perhaps the nuclear families, couples, and singles of the 20th century are a historical anomaly, when transportation and migration moved faster than society could catch up. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How not to start a co-op: Gentrification at 1040 Folsom Street

One of the unfortunate side effects of the rising popularity of communal living among middle and upper income people is that certain types of housing, once thought to be gentrification-proof, are now on the front lines.

1040 Folsom Street in San Francisco is one such example.  Former a SRO (single room occupancy) residential hotel, the three story, 10,000 square foot building was gutted by a fire in 2011, displacing 90 residents.  The building, built in 1912, is subject to rent control regulations, which specifies that  displaced residents have the right to re-rent their rooms at the original price after repairs are made. 

The building owner instead master-leased the property to The Negev, a property management startup that converted the building into a high-end co-op targeted towards tech workers.  Rent was doubled from $634 to $1250 for a room.  The Negev also reduced the number of rooms to 40, using the additional space for bars, game rooms, theaters, and other recreational facilities. 

While The Negev attempted to buy out the former residents, not all of them took the $500 buyout offer.  The Negev proceeded to rent out the entire building anyway.  About a month after the new residents had moved in, some of the old residents noticed, and filed complaints and lawsuits

You can look up complaints via San Francisco's Property Information Map - just enter 1040 Folsom Street.

At this point, the situation looks bad all around - not only is the building essentially double-booked, but as the number of bedrooms has decreased, even if it were vacated, it would be impossible to rehouse all the old residents. 

Broader Implications
While The Negev and other similar tech co-ops have proven that there is a market for this kind of housing, the displacement of low-income residents is a bad way to do it, and likely to lead to a backlash.  Currently, SF has regulations that limit conversion of residential buildings to other uses, I can foresee regulations prohibiting the conversion of bedrooms into non-bedroom space.

McMansions - a potential alternative?
The size of 1040 Folsom is similar to about 2 or 3 McMansions.  These types of buildings are quite common throughout suburbia, and a precedent has been established via Cupertino's Rainbow Mansion, a 5,000 square foot house in Silicon Valley. 

The conversion of large houses to communal living is already common in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of the South Bay (just look for streets where the number of parked cars approximate 5-10 per house).  However, as zoning currently makes this illegal, and immigrants lack political capital, this model has been kept under the radar.  Tech companies, on the other hand, may be more willing and able to take the risks required to disrupt suburbia in a more visible way. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

One of my other projects, the High Speed Rail Board Game

Aside from researching cooperative housing, I've also made a series of rail maps, including the California Rail Map, the Northeast U.S. Rail Map, and the  U.S. High Speed Rail Map.  Based on the latter is the High Speed Rail Game, a fast, fun, and educational game for 2 to 6 players where players act as politicians and make deals to get their voters connected.

The game's designed to be simple to learn and play, and is fun for both housemates and experienced gamers. 
  • Only 1 page of rules.
  • Sets up in 1 minute: just shuffle the cards and go.
  • All math limited to single digit numbers.
  • Just four types of tiles.
I'm currently fundraising for a first print run on Kickstarter, you can get a hard copy for as low as $15, shipping included within the US.  Details are at

Thursday, July 3, 2014

34 unit "CoLiving" on Octavia in SF

Build Inc has released plans for its proposed 34-unit CoLiving building on Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco. 

174 square foot Residential Suites
The project features 34 residential suites28 of them are 174 sf standard units and 6 are 273 sf wheelchair accessible units.  The regular units feature:
- a 10'x10' bedroom / living room
- a 9'x3' bathroom with storage above
- a 9' long kitchen

Rooftop and 5th floor common space
The site presently has a community garden, that will be relocated to the roof.   Just below it on  the 5th floor there will be two common areas (kitchen and dining on one side, living room on the other), each around 700 sf.  This is an unusual location for common space, as residents would not pass by the space on their way home.  However, the choice to locate it at the top floor does ensure more sunlight and closer access to the garden.  It will be interesting to see if residents end up using these 5th floor and roof spaces often, or if they just hang out in cafe and parklet on the ground level. 

By the numbers
- The site is 120' long and about 25' deep, for a total area of around 3000 square feet.
- The building appears to have a total of 15,000 square feet.  Of this, roughly 2,000 looks like retail and the other 13,000 residential. 
- The 34 units provide a total of 6,510 sf rentable space, which at the developer's estimated rent of $1,350 per unit per month, would bring in around $550,000 of rental income per year. As this is classified as group housing, no below market rate units are required.
- 34 residents makes a good community size, many successful communities are about this large.
- Private space is about 50% of total residential area.
- Bedrooms are about 26% of total residential area.  This is comparable to similarly sized Berkeley student co-ops, however, Build Inc's project has less common rooms and instead opts to provide each bedroom its own bath and kitchen.

Compared to a traditional apartment building
An identical site next door has a 22-unit apartment building proposed.   This one features 10 two-bedroom units (avg 600 sf) and 12 studios (avg. 271 sf), for a total of 32 bedrooms and 9,252 sf rentable space.
As such, the population density of Build Inc's CoLiving project will probably turn out to be similar to that of a traditional apartment building, and possibly less - because in SF, people will use living rooms as bedrooms.
- Assuming that studios will rent for $2000 and two-bedrooms for $3500, and 20% of the units are below market rate units that go for half price, the traditional apartment will bring in around $600,000 of rental income per year.  

Different, but not dramatically more profitable or denser
It appears that CoLiving as designed will have slightly less revenue than a traditional building, though the modular suites (to be built offsite) may bring enough time and cost savings to give it comparable profitability.  The need to provide all those bathrooms and kitchens eats up a lot of space. 

What's next?  10-bedroom full floor apartments?
While a departure from the typical apartment building with it's mix of one and two bedrooms, Build Inc's CoLiving fails to realize significant space efficiencies.  Understandably, professionals paying $1,350 a month probably don't want to share bathrooms with 34 people.  However, a smaller community size, of perhaps 10 people, might make it more palatable.

A 10-bedroom apartment could easily fit on this size of site, and would be more efficient than either the CoLiving or a traditional apartment as it would not need as many hallways on each floor.  The popularity of old Victorian houses for group living suggests this could be a future model.