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Co-living goes mainstream, but this is not roommate roulette

  • Co-living basically means that strangers move in together, sight unseen, each signing their own lease for a private bedroom and bathroom but sharing common spaces.
  • Developers are trying to create a particular social environment that they want to exist in the building.

The "social" generation is poised to disrupt another industry. The same way that the car scene changed with Uber and NYC offices started going virtual, co-living is coming to a neighborhood near you.

Co-living basically means that strangers move in together, sight unseen, each signing their own lease for a private bedroom and bathroom but sharing common spaces. As rents soar, younger renters are proving they're willing to upend the old find-a-roommate-on-Craigslist model that has served millions.

Old, mainstream apartment developers are rushing to cash in on the change, and co-living is already disrupting the Chicago rental market.

Property Markets Group, an apartment developer operating in New York City, Miami and Chicago, designed and built one of the first rental apartment buildings specifically for co-living.

Certain units in the new building in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood have three bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. The common area is fully furnished, from flatware to flatscreen television, and the hall closet is oversized to fit three different individuals' stuff. Each resident has his or her own one-year lease, and, unlike traditional roommate situations, no one in the unit is responsible for anyone else.

Among the common spaces the building offers is a kitchen space, which includes a kitchen area, seating and a work table for residents to use.
Emily Gaffney | CNBC
Among the common spaces the building offers is a kitchen space, which includes a kitchen area, seating and a work table for residents to use.

The building does have other regular units because it was difficult to find financing for a concept that is so new. Investors usually want to see a very clear rent stream. This was a bit trickier, with three individual leases in one apartment.

The concept is the brainchild of millennials Ryan Shear and Noah Gottlieb, both principals at PMG. Their company has been around for a quarter century, but the idea is entirely new, born of today's sky-high rents and new social realities.

"When we left college, there was really no place that we could live," Shear said. "Social living, which is probably what summarizes what we're doing, it didn't exist. It still doesn't exist on a mass scale. There was no community that was just targeted for the young professional."

So they pitched the idea and ran with it — not just developing the building, but seeding the social environment that they hoped would exist there.

"Programs are a piece of it. So having people come to the building that host programs. Big amenity platforms," said Shear. "You don't need to join an outside gym because our gym is oversized. Or, you don't need to go join a co-working space because we have a co-working space here."

The communal spaces in the building include a large roof deck boasting a real antique L-train car, gutted and refit with bar stools.

John Mackey, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market Inc.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
John Mackey, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market Inc.

"I think it's important contextually to remember we're not doing anything new," said Gottlieb, who lives in the building in a one-bedroom unit. "People have been renting and living with strangers for a long time. The Craigslist model is established, and it's something that people, especially younger generation of people are very used to dealing with. I think what we're trying to do to be effective is to mitigate the negative aspects of that."

To that end, there is a cleaning service in the building for the common spaces. And, if co-living tenants don't get along with each other, they can opt to change units.

"Most importantly, we're going to create an environment where you can make friends and you're around like-minded people all the time," said Gottlieb, who is already working on another project in Chicago with more co-living units.

The buildings cost slightly more to develop because of the additional bathrooms and social spaces, but that can be made up in the rent. While rents are lower for each individual, the combined rent per unit is higher.

"Co-living does, for the most part, solve the price point problem. It's your cheapest entry into a building," said Shear, who is based in Miami and developing the concept there. "Every one of our buildings will feel the same. They're all different locations, they won't all look the same, but they will all have the general bones of this philosophy."

Other companies, like Common and WeWork offer co-living options, but they don't own or develop the buildings themselves. They also offer shorter-term leases, which create more of a transient environment in the properties.

That was not what Dan Ellch was looking for when he first learned about PMG's new building in Chicago.

"I was a little bit hesitant, and then I started to think about it more, and I thought, living alone isn't that great, so as long as I have my bedroom, my own bathroom, I'm OK with it," said Ellch, who just signed up for another year. "And having some roommates isn't a bad thing."

The building includes several common spaces for residents to congregate with each other.
Emily Gaffney | CNBC
The building includes several common spaces for residents to congregate with each other.

Ellch said he likes the social aspect of the building and especially likes that he is not in any way financially responsible for his roommates' leases. He does not see co-living as just a millennial fad.

"I think it will continue, especially as people move around a lot and they're not fixed at an early age to a location. This is a great bridge to a new city or new area," Ellch added.

Gottlieb said demand for the Chicago building was incredibly strong, stronger than he even expected. He was also surprised by the types of applicants.

"The average age of our tenants renting by the bed is above that of our regular units. The average credit score of the people who are renting by the bed is above that of our regular units, so we're finding that it's a broad range demographic of people who are just living there for different reasons," he said. "They want to live in the social community. They want to make new friends. They want to save a few bucks while they do so."

PMG plans to roll out 3,500 more co-living units over the next five years in both New York City and Miami.

"It's been evolving over many years. It's not something we said, 'Hey, let's jam people together and have a party.' It has 10,000 moving parts to it. Our ability as the developer to control all of them, I think, is a massively, a huge competitive advantage to somebody else," Shear said.