September 23, 2019

There’s nothing new about co-living spaces. It’s the same old concept of sharing a living space with a group of people, packaged under a different, more millennial-friendly name. In truth, co-living, or communal living, has been around since the 1900s when New York introduced boarding houses in response to the mass immigration boom. Each boarding house was a community in itself, catering to specific groups such as Chinese immigrants, sailors, even women’s suffrage advocates.

This form of living took on a new name—co-housing—in Denmark in the 1960s, when young working families would purchase adjoining houses and enlist each other’s help to look after the kids when there’s no one around. In the 1970s, it evolved yet again into hippie communes in America, whose occupants focused on agrarian, pro-nature living and prioritising communal needs over the individual’s.

Today, the modern, emerging culture of co-living doesn’t seem to be driven by any social cause. Although some argue for it as a way to remedy the affordable housing crisis, it appears to be made for the economically mobile and culturally idealistic. It serves those with the financial freedom to choose what kind of lifestyle they want to lead, and what kind of people they want to be surrounded by.

Proprietors of such residences would say the chief difference between co-living and living in a rented apartment or hotel is the former’s emphasis on building communities. Yet, the average HDB building complex, housing scores of families, has its neighbourhood community centre, whose specific function is to engage the residents through public events. You don’t have to sign up for a co-living apartment to experience the kampung spirit.

Despite not being a novel idea, the world has seen an undeniable rise in this sector, powered to some extent by the co-working trend that gave freelancers worldwide a stable, productive place to call their second home. Through the distinct culture that co-working companies have created, this industry has carved a niche out for itself, separate from its antecedents. With co-living spaces, folks can now aspire towards a Utopian, Friends-like lifestyle.

While The Collective, an $850 million co-living empire, and WeLive, run by co-working giant WeWork (whose recent IPO fell through), are dominating the alternative rental scene in the US and London, Singapore has seen a jump in co-living options. Among the firms that have jumped onto the bandwagon include Hmlet (established in 2016), CP Residences (incorporated in 2017), and LOGIN Apartments (opened in early 2018). Joining them this year is also CapitaLand and The Ascott Limited’s lyf, which recently launched a nine-storey, 121,000sqft property at the renovated Funan.

Not all co-living properties are created equal though. Many of LOGIN Apartments’ offerings are situated in existing condominiums, operating more like serviced apartments with rental rates ranging between $1,200 and $2,300 per month. CP Residences provide more or less the same arrangements, managing various units at a handful of existing apartment buildings instead of building a complex of its own. Here, prices can be rather steep from $1,300 a month for a private bedroom, to $8,060 a month for a three-bedroom family unit at Cairnhill Crest.

As for homegrown start-up Hmlet, it’s launched its own facilities, the latest one situated in Cantonment with over 150 individual rooms, shared kitchens, a fitness studio, a plunge pool and an in-house cafe. Built as private bedrooms with an en-suite bath, instead of a full-scale apartment, the spaces can be rented for about $870 to $1,920 a week. With 412 rooms available, Lyf’s newest addition also features cosy private bedrooms with an attached bathroom for the lone wolves, as well as larger spaces that can accommodate up to 9 guests.

It’s hard not to think of these co-living spaces as pricier versions of a hotel, with a more picturesque facade that resonates more with our Instagram-obsessed, Scandinavian decor-loving younglings. But there’s merit to the way they engage the community. Not every millennial would be interested in learning how to line dance at the community centre, but they’d jump at the opportunity to participate in a chocolate and wine pairing workshop, one of many events Lyf organises for its occupants.

Calvin Cai, the country head at LOGIN Apartment, explains, “There are quite a few distinctions between the events offered by co-living spaces and publically organised ones. Our events are targeted towards cultivating meaningful experiences for our tenants through carefully curated activities. Comparatively, public community events are usually catered to a much larger demographic, which may not always include activities that would be of interest to our target market, i.e. expat professional millennials.” Not to mention, these events (unlike the ones advertised in HDB elevators) are free for residents.

Brands such as Lyf are much more mindful about creating communities for like-minded individuals as well, targeting “technopreneurs, independent creatives, business executives, start-up enthusiasts, and industry innovators” and “millennial and millennial-minded guests,” says Mindy Teo, The Ascott Limited’s deputy managing director. For some, it means getting to know its applicants before matching them to a suitable community.

Calvin adds, “We try our best to match our tenants along the lines of their interests, occupation and personality, ensuring that everyone who lives with us are on the same, if not, similar wavelength.”

Andy Low, a general manager at LHN Group (the property group responsible for co-living space 85 Soho), echoes, “We get to know our members on a personal level and find out what they are interested in and connect them with other members who have similar hobbies. Most members feel at home within a few days and start working out, cooking, and eating together, always making plans with each other in their free time.”

Nonetheless, there’s still the question of whether such co-living apartments are just a way to squeeze a bunch of working professionals into tiny rooms, while charging them above average rates under the guise of being part of a “cool community”. At Lyf, for instance, the property (which occupies levels 4 to 12 of the Funan mall) can host about 500 patrons at maximum occupancy. Yet, there are only four washing machines and dryers at the in-house laundromat, which could potentially spell major congestion. The “social kitchen” also only features 10 cooking stations, although it’s less of a problem considering that many guest rooms are equipped with kitchenettes. 

Co-living spaces may also end up making it impossible for its occupants to fully switch off from work. Lyf’s facility includes a co-working space, which means a remote worker wouldn’t have to leave the building to eat, sleep, and work. Sure, it’s convenient, but it could also be reminiscent of a live-in factory-like environment.

“Lyf properties are purpose-built to facilitate interactions in our social spaces, to allow people to live, work, and play, by blurring the lines in between,” says Mindy. For those seeking to be more productive, such arrangements are a godsend. For others, it’s a one-way ticket toward work-life integration, where fun activities become subconsciously treated as networking events as well. It’s a small price to pay if that’s the kind of life you’re looking for.

[Related: Why I Started Stage 6, a Conscious Co-Living Space]