In search of reasonable rent, the middle-class backbone of San Francisco — maitre d's, teachers, bookstore managers, lounge musicians, copywriters and merchandise planners — are engaging in an unusual experiment in communal living: They are moving into dorms.
Shared bathrooms at the end of the hall and having no individual kitchen or living room is becoming less weird for some of the city's workers thanks to Starcity, a new development company that is expressly creating dorms for many of the non-tech population.
Starcity has already opened three properties with 36 units. It has nine more in development and a wait list of 8,000 people. The company is buying a dozen more buildings (including one-star hotels, parking garages, office buildings and old retail stores), has raised $18.9 million in venture capital and hired a team of 26 people. Starcity said it was on track to have hundreds of units open around the San Francisco Bay Area this year, and thousands by 2019.
These are not micro-units, nor are they like WeWork's WeLive housing developments, where residents have their own small kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms but share common event space and industrial appliances for parties. These are not single-family homes that are being used as group houses.
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Instead, Starcity residents get a bedroom of 130 square feet to 220 square feet. Many of the buildings will feature some units with a private bath for a higher rent. But Jon Dishotsky, Starcity's co-founder and chief executive, said a ratio of one bathroom for every two to three bedrooms makes the most sense for large-scale affordability. The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco rents for $3,300 a month, but Starcity rooms go for $1,400 to $2,400 a month fully furnished, with utilities and Wi-Fi included.
"If you think about the most private things that you do, a lot of them are related to the bathroom," said Mr. Dishotsky, 34. "So that's probably the hardest part."
Starcity's target demographic makes $40,000 to $90,000 a year. Most of the residents, who range in age from their early 20s to early 50s, have no political philosophy around communes nor any previous experience in them. Moving in was a practical decision they each made. But after they arrive, what they are most surprised by is how much the building changes them.
One recent night, the Mission Street house gathered to celebrate a set of birthdays, and there in a party hat was Carla Shiver, 38.
Last year, Verizon eliminated Ms. Shiver's job in Albany, Ga., but offered to transfer her to San Francisco to work at a store. Ms. Shiver, who makes about $85,000 a year, knew she could never afford a house here but moved anyway.
"People talk all the time about what they dream of, and I decided to stop talking about it and just do it," Ms. Shiver said. "I was looking for more meaning."
She divorced her husband, packed her Yorkie Pomeranian, Stanford, in the car and drove west.
The idea of sharing a bathroom was initially alarming, but the pictures of the house looked nice and Ms. Shiver wanted to meet new friends. For $2,200 a month, she now rents a Starcity room with a queen-size bed, a bedside table and a chair.
She said she could not imagine any other life.
"I've run a household; I've done the bills; I've mowed the yard, and I don't want to be responsible again," Ms. Shiver said. "I want to paint and learn how to make ramen noodles. And when we run out of tinfoil, there's just more tinfoil."
The Starcity community manager (a.k.a. the building manager) is extremely involved in household affairs, dropping off care packages when someone is sick and organizing birthday parties. If tenants sign up for premium services, Starcity will do their laundry for $40 a month, clean rooms for $130 a week and even arrange for dog day care. For many residents, the arrangement does not feel temporary.
"I never thought I could live like this," Ms. Shiver said. "But the more I live here, the freer I feel."
She said she had not locked her bedroom door once since moving in, and most days when she gets home from work, a roommate has taken her dog into the shared living room. She said she hardly thought about the dorm-style bathroom setup, that there had never been a line for a shower, and that the building was like a family.
"This afternoon we're going to the Exploratorium," she said, referring to the science museum located at Pier 15.
Mr. Dishotsky looked very much the part one morning as he walked into a building site.
Wearing muddy leather boots, black jeans and a hard hat, he examined Mason Street, formerly a residential hotel that served homeless and low-income people in the Tenderloin neighborhood. It will soon be 71 Starcity units.
The Tenderloin, a traditionally working-class and diverse neighborhood with a large arts scene and a sizable homeless population, has been slowly gentrifying, leading to rising tensions. (Most of Starcity's residents are white.) On the sidewalk outside Mr. Dishotsky's construction zone that morning, there were used needles and several tents.
He paced through the first floor's 2,500-square-foot living room. The basement will be a communal kitchen, with a lineup of industrial sized refrigerators.
The only thing people really need to do alone is sleep, he said.
"What are the things you can do with other people? Eat food, drink wine, watch TV," he said. "You don't need to do that in your own unit alone, so why pay for it?"
Mr. Dishotsky grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., where housing prices have soared and the median home value is now more than $3 million. His parents were both teachers and left-wing political activists living in an intentional community in the late 1960s before they bought a house for $50,000.
After Mr. Dishotsky graduated from college, he spent a decade at a commercial real estate firm making deals until one day in 2015, he had a crisis. His friends were leaving town. The arts scene was fading. He saw a political cause and an economic opportunity.
"My mom got shot once protesting for what she believed in," he said. "And here I am building offices."
So he quit. He wanted to build something that, at market rate, would be affordable.
When Mr. Dishotsky first tried to get a bank loan for his new type of pared-down housing, he was turned away by 40 lenders.
"They were like, 'Who would live this way?'" he said. "We're like, 'It's everybody, it's normal people you know.'"
A couple blocks away was the Ellis Street building, a former bathhouse turned into medical offices that became a vacant property. Another developer had tried to turn it into 11 luxury condos. Mr. Dishotsky's pitch was 52 dorm rooms.
The move was both idealistic and practical. Because of arcane permitting rules and neighborhood associations that push against new developments, building new housing in San Francisco is painfully slow. But workers keep flooding the city, so roommates jam tighter into existing housing, already sharing bathrooms and renting living rooms as bedrooms. Mr. Dishotsky said he decided to build for what was already the city's reality.
At the Ellis Street site, his team is digging down about a level and a half to make a basement lounge. Each floor has a communal kitchen for eight to 15 people. He's working with his co-founder, Mohammad Sakrani, 30, on new beds that can be hoisted up and suspended from the ceiling during the day. They are also trying to design modular bathrooms and even entire bedrooms that can be "plugged in" to buildings.
In Starcity's South of Market building, known as Gilbert House, which has a reputation for being the party house, tenants call themselves the Gilbertines.
Migerta Ndrepepaj, 25, the headwaiter at the Nob Hill Club at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, said her favorite tradition was Sunday family days when the housemates cook together and go on adventures like renting go-karts.
"That makes us sound like college kids," Ms. Ndrepepaj said. "But we're not."
For the annual San Francisco race and parade Bay to Breakers, the housemates rented sets of four-seater tandem bikes and cruised the city. For Halloween, they dressed as characters from "Alice in Wonderland" (Ms. Ndrepepaj was the White Rabbit). Recently, they all went to Lake Tahoe to a house that Starcity supplied.
"You don't have to think up plans anymore because they kind of do it for you," she said. "And now, I live with my best friends."
The units are fundamentally not fancy, but Starcity adds accents that gives the spaces a trendy millennial look. Furniture is a midcentury-modern aesthetic. Plants hang in concrete pots on the walls alongside art that residents make on painting nights.
"I feel like I'm in a relationship with everyone I live with," Ms. Ndrepepaj said. "If their day is bad, your day is bad."
One evening back at Starcity's Mission House, Rachel Haltom, 22, an account executive at Yelp, baked a birthday cake with Steph Allen, 24, a fashion boutique merchandise planner, for a housemate.
Ms. Haltom had never made meringue, but Chris Maddox, 27, a writer, had come home and took over the egg-white whipping. One tenant announced a secret crush on another, and there was debate about the merits. They joked about alcoholic seltzer water, a new trend they all agreed was absurd, as Ms. Allen drank one.
Before Starcity, Mr. Maddox paid $4,100 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and worked near constantly as chief executive of Seneca Systems, a start-up that provided software for local governments.
What he wanted was to be a writer. Now, he pays $1,900 a month and lives in a cluttered bedroom with a bed, a record player and an overflowing bookshelf.
Katherine McKim, 37, came home with her dog, Zoey, who trotted around the kitchen. Ms. McKim had worked for Penguin Random House in New York but always admired the San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books, so when she and her husband divorced, she packed up and moved out. (There are quite a few divorcées in Starcity.)
"Everybody told me housing in San Francisco was really expensive, but I was like, 'I live in New York, how much more expensive can it be?'" she said. "I was a bit cocky."
Now, for $2,050 a month, she has space for a dog bed for Zoey, a full-sized bed for herself, a TV, a mini fridge and a sink.
Every other Wednesday is "wine night." An upcoming Tuesday is "kombucha and yoga night." On Feb. 14, it was "pal-entines day," planned and hosted by Starcity.