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Deals & Dealmakers

Now is the time to re-think live-work communities

An affordable housing developer by trade, I’ve always sought to figure out the best housing type for different groups of people – what do they need and what do they want?  My early work in repurposing Single Room Occupancy hotels as permanent housing for homeless individuals in New York City taught me that we had to make use of what we had and think of new ways to address problems. Since most of the homeless individuals received a $215/month rent stipend from the government, we had to build housing they could afford. The experiment worked and was followed by an entire “supportive SRO industry” that continues today.

Today, the term for housing with smaller living spaces and shared amenities – co-working spaces, fitness areas, dining rooms, libraries and the like – is “co-living.”  

Slower to take off in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, co-living is being developed in our large US cities to offer housing affordable to young working people and older adults. Both populations are seeking housing that is affordable, offers on-site common spaces and services, and provides an opportunity to be part of a community.

Now, with every aspect of our lives put on “pause” except the most essential industries, we have an opportunity to take a hard look at what we need and don’t need.

With a large percentage of the work force now working from home – both those employed by corporations and those in the gig economy, many of us are likely to continue a majority of our working hours working from home. Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, has told his employees that they can work from home forever if they like. 

This is the time to re-envision how to integrate housing and work.  Many of us live in urban settings – in apartment buildings with little common space. We can’t work forever on our kitchen tables.  At the same time, real estate experts are recognizing that in most cities there will be excess commercial space as companies will no longer require tens of thousands of square feet of office space.  How can we take these realities and convert existing resources into more comfortable, usable and affordable live-work situations? How can we rewrite building and zoning codes to incentivize new development of and renovate existing buildings to include co-working spaces?

A new type of co-living/co-working residential development might include building new co-working space or converting certain areas in existing buildings into co-working spaces for the residents.

The cost of operating the co-working areas might be supported by a “fee” paid by the tenant who uses the co-working space, with such fee supported by a “subsidy” from employers who would be saving the cost of high priced commercial real estate.  Gig economy workers would pay their own fee.

This approach would require the residential and commercial real estate industries to work together to come up with approaches that utilize our existing built spaces and provide workable incentives for new developments.

But that is one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic- it is levelling the playing field in many arenas, requiring us to think “out of the box” if we are to survive, and helping us to learn how to share resources and value the importance of community.

Claire Altman is president of Altman Strategies, LLC

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