Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
The startup Starcity plans to build an 800-unit, 18-story “dorm for adults” to help affordably house Silicon Valley’s booming workforce.
Jon Dishotsky likes to tell the story of how he grew up in a co-housing compound, of a sort. His father, a Stanford professor, hosted dozens of students over the years, who paid low rent and cycled in and out of his suburban Palo Alto home. They’d share meals with his family and pitch in to take care of Dishotsky when his parents were busy. They helped build a zip line. It was a kind of ad-hoc community; he’s still in touch with some of these ex-students.
Dishotsky, the co-founder/CEO of the start-up Starcity, is now working to fill America’s housing-strapped cities with a scaled-up version of his childhood idyll. Since launching in 2016, the company has broken ground on seven developments in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In most Starcity buildings, renters get a furnished 130- to 220-square-foot bedroom and share a communal kitchen and living space. In a addition to a “generous bathroom to room ratio,” the company touts a range of Millennial-friendly amenities, including an honor library, “locally sourced foliage,” and Bob Ross painting nights. Rents range from $1,400 to $2,400 a month. “We’ll make the living arrangements delightful and sustainable so that people can stay in cities long-term,” Starcity’s website promises. “We will do this by redefining the meaning of home.”
That definition is about to get a whole lot larger. Last week, the company got the green light to start work on its biggest project—an 18-story building with 803 units in the heart of downtown San Jose, a city in the crosshairs of California’s housing crisis. This Titanic of co-living is set to be the biggest shared-living-space-cum-mega-dorm-for-emerging-adults ever conceived. (Dishotsky pushed back on my abstract reference to the doomed liner. “We haven’t built the building yet!” he wrote me in a follow-up email. “And I won’t drive us into an iceberg. It will be built to standards beyond code.”) Rents will start in the low-$2,000s, including furnishings, utilities, WiFi, and rapport-building building-wide events.
Starcity is just one of a growing cadre of startups offering variations on this communal-living theme. (Note: While the terms “co-housing” and “co-living”—with and without hyphens—are sometimes used interchangeably, the former is usually reserved for smaller-scale intentional communities built around private homes with shared facilities, while “co-living” covers a range of dorm-style apartment buildings.*) Bungalow has converted more than 500 single-family homes to co-living spaces in 10 U.S. cities. Common offers shared suites in six cities. WeLive, owned by the co-working goliath WeWork, rents studio and one-to-four bedroom apartments as well as communal ones in New York City and Washington D.C. And The Collective, a global brand, has high-rise co-living complexes in London, New York, and soon, Chicago.
These outfits all seem to speak the same aesthetic language. Their sleek promotional materials scream “Instagrammable Friends episode, but more diverse,” or perhaps just “Coke commercial sponsored by Wayfair.” Their roots, however, lie someplace older and grubbier: the low-budget single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, of the early 20th century. Just as industrial cities looked to SROs and flophouses to shelter their booming young urban workforce, Starcity is making buildings that can accommodate the live-work-play (but crucially, always-work) demands of a new labor class.
Starcity considers itself distinct from SROs, however, in how it uses each building, as Curbed SF reported: “95 percent of the usable square footage in an SRO is renters’ rooms, with the remaining five percent mostly hallways. By comparison, a Starcity building is about 65 percent bedrooms, and 20 percent of the building is dedicated to ‘communal spaces and kitchens.’” And renters commit to living there longer than the transient characters who once bunked at week-to-week boarding houses: More than 70 percent of tenants want leases longer than month-to-month, Dishotsky told Curbed.
But this reinvention of an old housing model comes with new logistical hurdles. High-density co-living buildings aren’t hotels, and they’re not quite traditional multi-family apartments. To break ground on the San Jose mega-project, Starcity had to work with the city to change local zoning codes.
In San Francisco, Starcity uses the local zoning category “group housing,” similar to what student dormitories use. L.A. zoning is more prohibitive. Co-living developments there must be classified as multi-family, so the Starcity model is scaled down to pair every three to six rooms with a kitchen. But in San Jose, the city agreed to create a new use category entirely for the project. After approval of the rezoning by the city council in February, “co-living” became its own distinct land-use classification in April.
“To our knowledge, this is the first dedicated ‘co-living’ zoning code to be established in the U.S.,” says Eli Sokol, Starcity’s development manager.
The rezoning speaks to how radical these spaces are, but also how much stake the city is putting in this model’s potential for packing in more residents, for less. Once slated to host a 300-unit multi-family complex managed by local developer KT Urban, the land is now cleared to hold almost triple that occupancy. It’s not just going to be the largest high-rise co-living building constructed: It’s the largest one “ever proposed—period,” Sokol says.
This makes sense for San Jose, a Silicon Valley city whose approach to housing has been, by necessity, “try anything.” After villages built out of shipping containers and a tiny homes pilot, a super-dense co-living behemoth could be the next logical step.
“We struggle so greatly just to get a shovel in the ground to get housing in the city, because construction costs are so high right now,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “The fact that the developer had found an approach that could get housing built was a good enough signal to me that we should get any obstacles out of the way.”
Average rents for a one-bedroom in San Jose have reached $2,700; the city topped Zillow’s list of “hottest housing markets” nationwide this year. The strain on middle-income renters will only multiply: Google is planning to expand its downtown campus by eight million square feet, adding up to 15,000 employees to the area.
The transformative urban implications of that development aren’t lost to Starcity. Another neighbor will be the Diridon Station transit center, which expects big upgrades and route expansions in the coming years. “The city blocks immediately to the south and west of the site are already under construction with dense urban residential and mixed-use projects that will help make San Jose a much more walkable and dynamic environment in the coming years,” says Sokol.
Besides creating a bespoke zoning category, San Jose swept away other barriers, including parking requirements (800 Millennials don’t need 800 parking spaces) and an inclusionary housing ordinance that holds developers to building 15 percent affordable units or paying a per-unit fee. When the Starcity project was first proposed, housing advocates in the city were cautiously optimistic about the role the giant complex might play in increasing supply, but were wary about the exemption.
“While many speakers and some councilmembers held the co-housing model up as naturally occurring affordable housing, SV@Home pointed out that the ‘units’ are not really affordable,” reads a statement from SV@Home, a local affordable housing policy group. “[T]hey are not rent-restricted, and often charge rents well beyond the reach of lower-income households.”
But the deal will move forward with the exemptions, for now, because without them, pushing any high-rise towards completion has proven difficult, says Liccardo. “I don’t pretend it will be a solution for large families or for homeless residents,” he says. “It’s a promising solution particularly for workforce housing.”
Construction is set to start in the fall, with a late 2021 opening, but Liccardo knows that a lot could still happen to derail the project. “Given the challenges of construction in the Bay Area, I’ll feel much more willing to express my pride at the ribbon cutting,” he says.
Bay Area renters seeking something more affordable could look to another Starcity development in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, whose permit was also approved last week. Rents at this 270-room, 16-story building will start around as low as $800 a month—“no easy feat in San Francisco,” says Sokol.
Half of the units will be affordable for renters who make 80 percent of area median income or lower. This makes it one of the first developments to qualify for California’s SB35 program, which offers an expedited building timeline for these more affordable buildings.
But most co-living developments don’t promote themselves as the cheapest bed in town: For that, finding a group home and cramming it with roommates can cost less, and you’ll still get to share spatulas and swap grunted hellos at the end of the workday. Instead, they’re pitching community-building as both a luxe amenity and a salve for the Bay Area’s tech-fueled social isolation. Life in a Starcity building is meant to be less stressful (no router installation or Ikea shopping!), have better feng shui, and, crucially, encourage you to be more social. “It’s a ‘put your phone down, have a conversation’ kind of place,” the company site says.
The San Jose mega-building, for example, will feature “vertical neighborhoods,” says Sokol, where residential floors are linked not just by horizontal hallways but by two-story communal spaces, and terraces whose stairs interconnect. “This way, a broad array [of] residents from multiple floors can interact and engage with one another socially within the building’s various communal spaces,” says Sokol. Roomies will share “chef-style” kitchens, dining areas, gym, co-working spaces, and ground-floor café. (Unlike a growing number of Silicon Valley/Bay Area Craigslist postings, Starcity won’t limit your kitchen privileges.)
Planned group activities include “weekend outings,” spill-your-guts bonding sessions, and, in L.A., a surf club. Even the Starcity property managers are apparently down to join your crew: “Would your landlord ever pick you up from oral surgery if you couldn’t find a ride? We would ♥,” the website reads. Would they?
Maybe it’s depressing that it now requires “empathy and data” to get housemates to talk to each other at the end of the day; maybe it feels inauthentic to fill your off-hours with Bob Ross painting sessions scheduled through the same online portal you use to pay your rent. And maybe it’s cynical to conclude that this whole concept is just the most efficient way to warehouse tech workers when they’re not coding. But it could also be better than the alternative: isolation and loneliness, the scourges prophesied by so many Millennial trend stories.
Fully breaking down that isolation would have to be both a product of community-building within the development, as well as interaction with the outside world, notes Alex Shoor, the co-founder of San Jose housing advocacy group CatalyzeSV.
“If you look at successful cities across America, the best thing you’re going to do is if you’re going to create a tower or a tall building, make sure it has more than one use and that multiple types of people can enjoy and interact with that building,” he says. The closed corporate campuses that line Silicon Valley’s Highway 101 corridor are a mistake, he says: They separate employees from the cities they live in, stuff them with free snacks, and send them back to distant apartments in cars at the of the day. If co-living developments can be more than just amenity-laden digital flophouses, they will need to be “permeable,” he says, allowing people outside the development to access space inside it, and those within to escape.
To take the dorm analogy one step further: The town-gown relationship between the college kids and the locals needs to be nurtured. Walkable, transit-oriented downtown San Jose could be the right setting for that kind of symbiosis, as long as the tenants venture outside occasionally.
And what happens when nature takes its course and the co-housed couple up? Eventually, it won’t just be singles that Dishotsky will tuck away into his swanky sleeping pods: Future iterations of Starcity’s co-living model will make room for babies, joining family-friendly co-living start-ups like Kin, which feature shared playrooms and family kitchens in its developments. If they play their cards right, Millennials could be able to stay in their dorms-for-adults right up to retirement, and beyond.
The Starcity family-floored blueprints aren’t solidified yet, but Dishotsky says that when it does launches, he, his wife, and his two-year-old daughter will be among the first to move in.
*UPDATE: An earlier version of this story was imprecise in its use of the terms “co-housing” and “co-living.”