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Co-living startups are reinventing the roommate concept [The Mercury News :: BC-REAL-COLIVING:SJ]

OAKLAND, Calif. - As demand for housing stays high across the Bay Area, a new trend in group living has come to the region.

A far cry from the commune movement of the 1970s, companies are offering modern shared-living arrangements, renting out space in multi-bedroom units to those who want the affordability or companionship of living with roommates without having to find their own roommates. As a bonus, these "co-living" spaces also often provide amenities such as cleaning services and HBO.

The latest addition to the mix is a company called Common, which works with developers and building owners to create apartments that are conducive to roommate life. Most units have three or four bedrooms and a common area that includes a kitchen and living room. Potential renters apply through Common for a room, and if they are accepted, they can get a minimum six-month lease, though according to company staff, most sign on for a year.

Living with roommates is nothing new, of course, but a growing crop of startups is seeking to make the process streamlined - and turning co-living into big business.

"It's a big trend that's here to stay, for as long as a lot more people want to move into big cities," said Niko Bonatsos, managing director of General Catalyst and an investor in co-living startup HubHaus.

Other companies have sprung up in recent years to serve a largely millennial audience with similar arrangements. WeLive, from the people who started co-working company WeWork, has buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., that let people stay for as little as one night, though they can also live there longer term.

On its website, Node advertises its "thoughtfully designed, fully furnished, boutique apartments in the world's most creative cities" that are created for community living. Krash, Ollie and Pure House promote their own co-living spaces across different cities. In the Bay Area, a group called Open Door offers rooms to rent in co-living communities in Berkeley and Oakland.

Co-living spaces can be especially attractive to young people who are new to the Bay Area, as the shared homes offer both an affordable place to live and a ready-made group of friends.

"The culture is very strong - it's almost like you're going home. You're spending time with a family, with a group of people who you care about and you connect with," said Shruti Merchant, co-founder and CEO of HubHaus.

The company rents almost four dozen large homes from landlords, mostly in the Bay Area, and then rents out bedrooms to individual tenants.

On a recent Thursday evening at the "Vega" house in Mountain View (all HubHaus homes have space-themed names) the roommates, who had recently discovered a peach tree in the yard, were discussing whether to make a peach pie or a peach cobbler. Last year, the house put together a group Halloween costume, with everyone dressing up as a different Tetris piece. And this year they made sacrifices for Lent together, giving up favorite things such as bacon and white rice and holding each other accountable when they cheated.

"We really, instantly were like, awesome, friends to do stuff with," 24-year-old Tasha Hodgson, a project manager at Tesla, said of the group's initial bonding. "We really hit it off really well."

At Common, renters apply to rooms that are often distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis and must pass a background and credit check, according to the company.

The apartments come fully furnished, including living room furniture, beds, kitchen supplies, washers and dryers, and even linens and cleaning supplies, said Common founder and CEO Brad Hargreaves. There is no splitting bills, as the company charges a flat monthly rent that covers rent, utilities and cleaning services for each apartment.

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And while the rooms wouldn't be considered affordable by many standards, in a region where prices for rentals have stayed high, residents say the co-living buildings are a relative bargain.

Common resident Micah Baylor said the inclusion of cleaning services, furniture, supplies, utilities and amenities such as cable and internet make the rooms a good deal. He would know - Baylor and his wife spent months staying in Airbnb rentals when they first moved to San Francisco from Texas and started shopping for housing options. Plus, he said, the move-in process at the Common building in San Fran's SoMa neighborhood was a breeze without the hassle of buying furniture or negotiating things such as deposits with a landlord.

Alex Hernandez, who moved to the Bay Area in May for an internship with Lockheed Martin, said HubHaus saved him from the "nightmare" that is the local housing market.

"The cheapest place I found was a studio for $1,600," 28-year-old Hernandez said, "but it looked like a place I might get stabbed if I wasn't careful." Instead, he pays $1,400 a month for a HubHaus room in a quiet, Sunnyvale neighborhood.

Common's $1,400 starting prices for rooms in the Oakland building when it opens in August will be cheaper than the company's San Francisco location, where rents start at $2,500. The rents vary depending on the size and amenities in the room (some rooms, for example, have private bathrooms or private balconies).

In Oakland, rents have been increasing rapidly. A one-bedroom unit typically rented for $1,710 last month, according to a recent report from ApartmentList.com, a website that tracks the national rental market.

Since Common opened its first building in New York in 2015, it has expanded to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Its two buildings in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood received 3,500 applications since it opened, said founder Hargreaves, and he expects huge demand in Oakland too.

"Shares are an important unit of affordable housing," Hargreaves said. "Our job is to make living with roommates easier."

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