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A Brief History of Co-Living Spaces

Those Millennial-filled compounds aren’t all that different from 19th-century boarding houses.

Residents crowd the steps and balcony of a boarding house in New York, circa 1860. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

We live in a world of ever-tinier micro-units, limited housing stock, and prohibitive rents. This is a world in which some purportedly well-adjusted, perfectly sane grown people pay to share bunk beds and willingly (?!) wake up for early morning dance parties in urban communes.

But co-living isn’t just a product of our current housing crisis or tolerance for club music before 7 a.m. There’s a long history of housing arrangements that served as de facto social networks for new urban transplants.

Homes away from home

In the 19th and 20th centuries, female boarding houses, like the one immortalized by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, served as places for new residents to get their city sea legs without immediately wading into the melee of the apartment-hunting game. (Historically, of course, these buildings were also brick-and-mortar chastity belts, cast in the role of protecting women’s virtue against the city’s vices.) One, the Jeanne D’Arc Residence in Chelsea, run by an order of nuns, offered a home for “friendless French girls” who immigrated for work as seamstresses or caregivers.

In The Boarding House in Nineteenth-Century America, the Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber estimates that “between one third and one half of nineteenth-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves.” And they weren’t just young women. A brochure about Walt Whitman’s strolls through Manhattan, printed in 1950s by the Academy of American Poets, notes the boarding houses where Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe hung their hats in the 1840s. In a 2013 Boston Globe piece about how boarding houses shaped urban life, the journalist Ruth Graham quoted Whitman cataloguing the diverse boarding house residents he encountered:

“Married men and single men, old men and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter-jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons—‘black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay’—all ‘go out to board.’”

As homegrown and foreign-born laborers rushed to the cities for employment opportunities, the boarding house became a symbol, Gamber writes, “of the transient nature of American life.”

During the World Wars, boarding houses also offered temporary accommodations to working women far from home, and for men stationed in unfamiliar places. For instance, the photo below shows workers from the munitions plant in Childersburg, Alabama, circa 1941.

Workers from an Alabama munitions plant eating dinner at their boarding house, 1941. (U.S. Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress)

In some cases, these boarding houses also preserved someone’s culture of origin while also helping them understand the customs of their new community. Take, for example, the scenes in the film Brooklyn, released last year, in which fellow boarders teach the doe-eyed Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey (played by Saoirse Ronan) how to wind and slurp spaghetti before she pays a visit to the parents of her Italian-American boyfriend.

Though their ranks have dwindled considerably, these types of accommodations are still appealing, The New York Times noted in 2009. The Times wrote that dormitories advertise “safety, cleanliness and—especially attractive in modern-day New York—a good real estate deal.”

But these services are also cashing in on the fact that they’re a known entity, sparing tenants the risk of wandering into a totally unfamiliar situation. They offer a built-in community, which can serve as a surrogate family for people still building up a new social network. In an essay for New York magazine last year, Catie L'Heureux—who lives in one of the city’s few remaining ladies’ boarding houses—wrote: “I co-exist in a multigenerational sorority of sorts, waiting for the right time to set out on my own.”

In addition to offering room and board, these spaces are promising that residents don’t have to navigate the process by themselves. A boarding house owner explained to L'Heureux:

“You come in, we make sure that everybody gets fed well, and then you go off, you do your job, and you do what your life dream is. And it’s like your little family.”

Self-contained communities

The boarding house was a transitory step between family life and independence. Boarding houses, which offered wholesome meals and housekeeping, appealed to people used to living with extended families, for whom the idea of living alone in studio apartment would have been unthinkable, Graham noted in the Globe.

In 2015, SFist used similar language to describe the crop of co-living spaces around the Bay Area. The site wondered whether local co-living startups were adopting a myopic solution to the housing crisis, with an expensive option that was only tenable for a small subsection of the population (namely, young tech employees earning hefty paychecks). But for those who did choose to join in, the site wrote, these rooms served as “the city's freshman dorms—a stepping stone before braving Craigslist all by one's lonesome.”

The social dynamics of boarding houses even
inspired dance ditties, like this 1893 score.
(New York Public Library Digital Collections)

The notion of a “dorm for grownups,” a protracted adolescence marked by communal six-packs of beer, is a trope that some contemporary co-living spaces are working hard to shrug off. Brad Hargreaves, the founder of Common, a new co-living space that opened in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood in October, told Fast Company that more than 300 people applied to live in the 19 rooms on offer. (Rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $1,800 to $1,950.) "I was worried everyone would be in college or starting out of college, but that’s definitely not the case," Hargreaves said.

Still, The New York Times pointed out last year that the commonly casual lease arrangement in these spaces—often a contract for just 30 days at a time—offers some flexibility for folks who might not have the credit history to secure a year-long lease, or who struggle to navigate the city’s notoriously “draconian rules about earning 40 times the monthly rent.” It’s a reprieve from a system that isn’t set up for first-time renters.

Other houses differentiate themselves on the basis of esoteric interests. Pure House, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, promotes itself as a “highly curated community of likeminded individuals.” Like a cruise ship permanently at port, it’s got a docket full of scheduled programs: meditation sessions, potluck dinners, massages, nutrition counseling, and morning dance parties. Rent is a described as a “membership”; instead of simply handing over a check, you’re “investing.” This language marks it as a place for discerning adults, as opposed to 20-somethings who don’t want to grow up.

When they go wrong

Sometimes, co-living spaces can’t find the right boarders. That was the case in the late 1800s, with Stewart’s Home for Working Women. A contemporary Harper’s Magazine story described the opulent New York City facility, pictured below, as providing a “spacious, secure, and comfortable house for working women of good character.” Designed to accommodate 1,500 women in plush surroundings, the home was too expensive to fill its rooms, and closed two months after opening.

Stewart’s Home for Working Women, a shuttered 1800s boarding house that was too fancy to retain tenants. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Modern co-living spaces aren’t always successful, either. Take, for instance, Campus, a San Francisco-based company that rented out rooms in 34 houses scattered around the Bay Area and New York City. Campus closed up operations in August 2015. "Despite continued attempts to alter the company’s current business model and explore alternative ones, we were unable to make Campus into an economically viable business," reads a statement posted to the company’s website.

These arrangements can also run up against housing laws, argued the New York City assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal in The New York Times. Shared rooms might actually run afoul of housing laws, which sometimes cap the number of residents who can share a space. “It’s about a few people making a lot of money masquerading as a shared economy,” Rosenthal told the Times in 2015. Rents could rise without much notice; in a rotating cast of housemates, new ones could bring a number of headaches.

“We live in a super-disconnected city that has tons and tons of people, but it can feel really lonely here,” one resident of a Brooklyn boarding house explained to the Times. That’s been true since folks starting moving to urban environments en masse. And while you wouldn’t be the first to roll your eyes at the sunrise yoga workshops and the vegan, raw BYOKombucha dinners, there’s plenty to like about feeling less alone.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.