In the first article of this sequence, we defined coliving as “a residential structure that accommodates three of more biologically unrelated people". This leaves room to a lot of different types of coliving structures to exist - and it’s time to narrow it down.
This article will define coliving further by establishing boundaries around what coliving means. And this will happen by narrowing down the term to its intention - namely, defining coliving as a freely chosen living form.
Coliving as a Lifestyle
If coliving describes the way we live with others under one roof and share common space, then it should be interpreted as a lifestyle choice. In that case, the definition of coliving should include the notion of primary residence.
I therefore suggest the following universal definition for coliving as a lifestyle option:
“Coliving is a freely chosen primary residence form of living that accommodates three of more biologically unrelated people.“
This definition will take away two factors from coliving: short-term stays and forced coliving models. Let’s see which categories are therefore fading away.
Removing “Involuntary” Coliving Forms
Being a freely chosen lifestyle, we can not refer to coliving spaces if they are imposed on us, meaning if we are not voluntarily opting in for coliving models.
Here are certain types of “coliving” that are not chosen voluntarily:
Prisons - inmates do not voluntarily choose to get into prison, as it’s a punishment system that is imposed upon sanctions (note: there indeed is one man in the United States that robbed 1$ from a bank to enter prison for its health care benefits, but I’ll consider that choice as an exception)
Military - even if not part of the mandatory military service, professional soldiers living in military camps don’t have the ability to choose where they are sent to
Hospitals - staying in health care centers are due to undesired and unplanned injuries or illnesses, which do not fall under the freely chosen category
Next, let’s emphasize on another part of the primary residence definition by enforcing another key factor - the stay’s longevity.
Removing “Short-Term” Coliving Forms
If coliving includes the notion of being a primary residence, it needs to focus on the long-term. Reason being that the definition of “primary residence” (by Cambridge Dictionary) includes two criteria that are directly correlated to long-term stay:
Because of that definition, we will be able to eliminate certain self-proclaimed “coliving” models that remain short-term, often with an intention to travel or pursue a specific short-lived experience.
Here are certain types of “coliving” that are not considered primary residences:
Campings - the vast majority of camping cases are recreational
Festivals - with a set start and end date, music and art festivals such as Burning Man remain a short-term experience
Retreats - while certain “one-month digital nomad retreats” label themselves as coliving, its purpose is outcome and experience oriented, and often do not surpass the one month benchmark
Summer Camps - similar to retreats, lengths vary from 1 to 8 weeks only
Guest Houses - although guesthouses can be used as primary residence, the vast majority of customers use it for recreational or short-term living purposes
Hotels & Hostels - while some hostels are able to create a great “coliving” community, stays are rather short and around the purpose of traveling
Removing those types of communal living form allows us now to focus on the types of coliving that exist today - and we’ll see each of them have already been existing across the 20th century.
Past & Contemporary Coliving Models
Having narrowed down the term, let’s have a look at “true” coliving models - those that allow residents to make it their freely chosen primary residence. Those models can be divided between two main categories, namely not-for-profit and for-profit models, the latter often being driven by profitability and scalability.
Part I -- Not-for-profit models
House- and Flatsharing
This form of living is very common - in the United States along, 30% of working-age adults live in doubled-up households, and more than half of young adults (54%) choose that lifestyle (Source: Zillow Analysis). That means that a large chunk of the population experienced coliving in a certain form, especially in urban areas. While many associate flat sharing with students, it also works with people from all age groups, include professional teams - for example, Mark Zuckerberg moved into a 5-bedroom house in Palo Alto back in 2004 with parts of his first Facebook team to live and work.
Historically speaking, household sharing is nothing new. For example, the San Francisco Hippy movement brought a lot of intentional communities together, which has been documented in Maxime Le Forestier’s song “San Francisco”:
It's a blue house
Hanging in my memory
We come there on foot, we don't impose
Those that live there, having thrown away the key
- Maxime Le Forestier, “San Francisco”, 1972
Non-Commercial Intentional Communities
One specific model of household sharing includes the notion of intentionality. Non-commercialised intention-driven coliving spaces can have different degrees of intentionality - bringing together residents based on value systems, belief systems or interests.
For example, Jesus People of USA is a Christian Intentional community in Chicago made out of up to 400 residents. Members share communal areas, attend study groups, split tasks and even redistribute parts of their income. In this case, there is a strong alignment in terms of beliefs and interests (check out their video for a brief insight into their coliving model).
The inside communal hall of JPUSA’s building “Friendly Towers” in Chicago
Intentional communities are nothing new either. According to JStor, the first intentional community in recorded history was Homakoeion, created by Pythagoras in 525 BCE. Since then, the movement has spread across niches, including fraternity and sorority spaces, which have been existing since the 19th century and continue to be a fundamental pillar of American student living accommodations.
Note: it is important to remember that many intentional communities fall within the cohousing sector, sharing main amenities but having private housing options. Intentional communities are part of the coliving lifestyle only if they offer shared housing options.
Squatting & Anti-Squatting
This is the most unheard form of coliving, but historically played a significant role. From political activists to homeless people squatting for housing needs, there are and have been many types of squats, some of them built on intentionality and clear community values.
As a counter-movement, it is worth noticing that the guardianship model has given rise to another form of coliving. In this model, tenants receive cheaper rent in exchange of inhabiting abandoned buildings or property that will be reconverted in the near future.
Note: the majority of squats are not coliving spaces - while there are almost a billion people living in squats in the modern world, according to Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, most squats are rural slums that mostly entail family-centered housing.
Part II -- For-profit models
Student Housing & Boarding Schools
The majority of for-profit coliving spaces are currently targeting the young market. Mostly for financial reasons, yet also for a desire for community, students have the tendency to take on commercialised student housing for its simplicity, practical location and sometimes advantageous housing prices.
In this example again, the concept is not new. Stated in CityLab’s 2016 article “A Brief History of Co-Living Spaces”, professor Wendy Gamber explains how in the 19th and 20th century “between one third and one half of nineteenth-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves”.
Who would have thought? Almost no one currently attributes senior housing to coliving, but senior housing is all around and the demographics will continue growing - as an example of that trend, the senior population shifted in Canada from 8% in 1960 to 14% on 2009. According to all population projection scenarios, seniors are expected to comprise around 23% to 25% of the population by 2036, and around 24% to 28% in 2061 (Source: Statistics Canada).
Senior housing doesn’t have to include day-care - in fact, there is a growing population of single and coupled seniors in perfect health who desire more community and shared space. Recently, an elderly women got visibility by launching a coliving space for seniors. Hence, senior housing is next to student living and flat sharing the current third biggest coliving model in the world.
When people refer to “coliving” in today’s context, the majority refer to that type of concept - namely, commercialised living for a wider population and age group.
Putting it into a historical context, Matthew Steward has pointed out how large coliving facilities existed already in the early 20th century. For example, North London’s “Isokon” project in the 1930’s offered individual rent, communal spaces, and services around the coliving space. Nevertheless, the project failed and similar concepts were started again in the late 2000’s, such as The Collective in London.
Another form of commercialised living are boarding homes.
Popular in the 19th and 20th century, boarding homes are “ facilities that provide housing and basic services to, and assume general responsibility for the safety and well-being of, individual residents” (definition by US Legal).
Boarding homes were often targeting new city arrivers. For example, Jeanne D’Arc Residence in Chelsea offered a home for “friendless French girls” who immigrated for work as seamstresses or caregivers. Moreover, during World War 2, boarding houses also offered shelter for men stationed in foreign places, like the picture below shows.
Within the 1950s and 60s, boarding homes virtually disappeared due to an increase move towards suburban areas and a desire to live in independent studios. Nevertheless, some still exist and continue taking on the term.
In a more contemporary context, short-term residence coliving spaces such as Dojo Coliving Bali offer coliving facilities for new arrivers, and my assumption is that many boarding homes will take the term “coliving” to rebrand themselves and target the “digital nomad” and/or "new arrivers" market.
We need to define coliving beyond the simple roof-sharing term.
To make the term more concise, I therefore propose the lifestyle definition of coliving as a “freely chosen primary residence”, which narrows down the term to certain key coliving forms.
Categorising coliving models and definition -
"commercialized living" being what today's coliving industry refers to.
This allows us to look at the next part of the coliving phenomena - namely, the rise of an industry. While student and senior housing have been around for ages, the target audience for coliving spaces in widening with the inclusion of young professionals, established professionals and families.
In the next part of this article, we will dig deeper into the emergence of different coliving types and how they are shaping the coliving industry.
This is Part 2/4 of “What is Coliving”. Subscribe to my newsletter to get updated about the next parts — namely, what types of coliving sub-niches are emerging within the industry, and why the rise of institutional players are giving birth to a movement.
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