Co-Living’s Reaction to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Shared housing operators found different ways to fight against the spread of the virus and, at the same time, serve residents and health-care workers. Here are some of their strategies.

Co-living means sharing, interacting and building a community. All these are now conflicting with authorities’ recommended—or in some areas, enforced—social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus health crisis. Additionally, public officials are urging people to self-quarantine and maintain a safety distance of at least 6 feet from others. Without a doubt, these regulations are not easy to abide by while sharing a home. But as the COVID-19 outbreak has worsened during the past few weeks, co-living operators have started to react.

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Drastic measures have been taken to protect both residents and employees. Most co-living companies are no longer allowing guests in the buildings they operate. Shared spaces and multi-touch surfaces are being disinfected using hydrogen peroxide-based products approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and access to all lounges, game rooms and other communal spaces has been temporarily restricted. Additionally, operators have increased the frequency of restocking basic household supplies they provide for each property, such as paper towels, dish soap, toilet paper, hand soap and other bath products. This is meant to reduce residents’ shopping sessions.

Eric Rodriguez, Vice President of Operations, Common. Image courtesy of Common

Eric Rodriguez, Vice President of Operations, Common. Image courtesy of Common

“People have been living with roommates for decades. In fact, one in three U.S. adults have lived with a roommate during their life,” Common Vice President of Operations Eric Rodriguez told Multi-Housing News. During these unpredictable times, Rodriguez is convinced that all co-living managers should communicate more, make cleaning a top priority and use technology as much as possible.

“Uncertainty can lead to concern and panic, so constant transparent communication on how you’re handling the outbreak allows for more peace of mind in your building. COVID-19 has proven to us how truly essential technology is to anyone managing a building. We’ve pivoted to 100 percent virtual tours, and are still booking the same number of tours that we were before the outbreak began,” Rodriguez added. To keep morale up, his company has moved all community events online. At the end of March, Common held a virtual yoga class for its 1,600 residents across seven states. 

As long as shelter-in-place orders, social distancing and moratoriums on public gatherings are in effect, shifting from in-person to online events is a solution co-living companies must resort to in order to maintain social interaction, a key part of human nature that cannot be completely canceled. “We felt it was crucial to keep this going and be creative in order to continue to provide a source of connection and engagement. As a result, our team conceptualized and executed an abundance of virtual events, such as cooking classes and trivia nights, allowing our residents to remain connected during this difficult time,” Gregg Christiansen, president of co-living company Ollie, said.

Overcoming hardships

Navigating a pandemic is no easy feat. Many co-living residents are struggling financially after losing their jobs due to COVID-19-related layoffs. “To give our residents some cash on hand, we opened up the option for them to get their security deposit back. We’re also rolling out a payment plan for those who cannot pay April’s rent,” Rodriguez said.

Sergii Starostin, Co-Founder & CEO, Outpost Club. Image courtesy of Outpost Club

Sergii Starostin, Co-Founder & CEO, Outpost Club. Image courtesy of Outpost Club

Uncertainty is hard to deal with. Everything changes frequently, making it very difficult to anticipate anything. “It is impossible to plan ahead for us as a company and for our tenants. We introduced flexible options to our tenants in terms of cancellations, to accommodate the growing uncertainty about summer,” Outpost Club Co-Founder & CEO Sergii Starostin explained. The shared-space provider operates in New York, New Jersey and California, the most affected states so far, according to the latest CDC data.

Due to the severity of the coronavirus situation in the aforementioned states, Outpost Club offered to dedicate turnkey apartments and houses to traveling doctors and nurses who are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. These homes are available on a month-to-month basis—with no security deposit required—for a monthly rent ranging from $990 to $1190, including utilities, depending on location. The dedicated housing is available in Brooklyn, N.Y., Manhattan, Jersey City, N.J. and San Francisco, where hundreds of thousands of makeshift hospital beds are being built.  

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All this was possible after Outpost Club student and corporate tenants started leaving to return home because of the crisis. The company regrouped the other tenants to release some apartments and houses. “We have a lot of requests now. There are a lot of people who are coming to New York for two- to three-month contracts in health care,” Starostin said.

Additionally, the company has also extended its offer to displaced students who were forced to leave dorms because of the outbreak. “The students were added into our existing houses, mixed with current tenants, while the health-care workers will have their own dedicated spaces to ensure the safety of all,” Starostin added.

Gregg Christiansen, President, Ollie. Image courtesy of Andrew Collings

Gregg Christiansen, President, Ollie. Image courtesy of Andrew Collings

Another example comes from Pennsylvania, where many students from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are now living at Ollie at Baumhaus, a 127-unit co-living community in Pittsburgh. “We saw a 5 percent increase in occupancy at that location, bringing occupancy to around 98 percent,” Christiansen said.

Co-living operators have different ways of helping in the fight against the pandemic and providing comfort to their residents. Some offer shorter lease lengths, gift cards, care packages with all sorts of complimentary goodies, and others are even donating their community budgets. “We’re creating ‘match’ programs for our residents so that if they submit a local donation and email us the receipt, we will match it,” Rodriguez said.

The COVID-19 aftermath

Although it’s very hard to tell what the impact of the pandemic will be on the co-living sector and how long the outbreak will last, operators are already preparing to get back to business as usual, but with better protocols at a company level, and more caution around hygiene and cleanliness. 

Rodriguez is convinced people will continue to choose to live with roommates in order to save money. Additionally, he’s confident the current situation is only temporary, and that he will soon be able to resume all his projects. “Throughout this unprecedented time and after the dust has settled, we’re continuing our expansion plans in partnership with investors and developers across the world14,000 beds across 22 cities. This includes both ground-up developments and management of existing real estate,” Rodriguez said.

Given the cost of housing in most major cities and a societal desire for human interaction, Christiansen also expects demand for co-living options to continue to increase when the health crisis is over. “After this is behind us, we see our growth path accelerating,” he said. 

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