Alfred Twu lives in the Bay Area and is a long time transit rider. He has studied architecture and business and is also an active participant of the cooperative movement, having worked in artist, food, and housing co-ops. He is also an illustrator for my forthcoming book Human Transit.
Also known as cooperative living, co-ops, communes, intentional communities, or living with roommates, shared housing creates challenges and opportunities for transit service. It can increase density without zoning changes or construction. However, good transit service needs to already exist for this to happen. As such, shared housing's greatest potential is in increasing utilization of under-zoned but well served neighborhoods.
What is shared housing?
Shared housing denotes a group of unrelated people live in a single dwelling unit. Kitchens, bathrooms, and other living areas are shared, bedrooms may be shared or single occupancy. In the Bay Area, this model is known as a co-op or cooperative. Note that the word co-op has an entirely different meaning on the East Coast.
Shared housing has a long history in the Bay Area, dating back to boarding houses. The modern Bay Area cooperative housing movement began in 1933 with the founding of the Berkeley Student Cooperative.
Although some structures are built with shared housing in mind, usually the building is simply a repurposed large house. For example, Ridge House, a 38 person student co-op, used to be a mansion, while Cooperative Roots, pictured below, houses around 20 people in two adjacent single family houses.
What does this have to do with transit?
Let's look at two neighborhoods: one dense, and one sprawling. The denser neighborhood will usually have better transit service.
Now, if zoning ordinances prevent additional housing from being built in Sprawlville, that does not mean it's the end of the story. While zoning typically concerns itself with units per acre, the density that matters for transit service is population per acre, or more specifically, commuters per acre.
This is where shared housing comes in. When a neighborhood of single family houses goes from having one or two working adults per house, to having 4 to 8 working adults, as far as transit is concerned, it's a high density neighborhood.
The catch to this though, is that this can only happen where there is already good transit service. When a group of people share a house, they'll all want easy access to their jobs, which may be in different directions. Not all of them will take transit either – some of them will need to drive to their jobs, some people prefer to bike. This is why shared housing works so well with college students – everyone is going to the same place for their "job", so only one frequent route is necessary.
Case Study: Ashby BART (San Francisco Bay Area)
A number of my friends who used to live in shared housing as students have formed their own communities after graduation. Most are now in their mid 20s to early 30s. Some work office jobs with traditional 9-5 hours, others work retail jobs with varying hours. Over the last few years, about 30 communities of 4 to 18 people have been formed. Most cluster around the Ashby rail rapid transit station. Let's examine why.
- It is about halfway between the two big job centers in the area: UC Berkeley and Downtown Oakland.
- It is 20 minutes on rapid transit to the region's largest job center, downtown San Francisco.
- It is close to freeway on-ramps.
- It is on flat ground and within biking distance of a large number of commercial districts. Bike access is important since transit service in the evenings and on weekends is limited.
- It is not in itself a downtown district. This means there are a lot of large houses with lots of bedrooms and yards – the preferred housing type.
- There are already other co-ops in the area.
The one co-op not near a BART station — an outlier near the bay — is an artists' warehouse.
Ashby Station: Excellent transit service but low density
The Ashby station neighborhood, which currently consists of mostly single family houses, had long been targeted by planners for transit oriented development. It has an underground rapid transit station with train frequency of every 7 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes at night and on weekends.
Ashby station neighborhood. Station is blue, parking lot is black.
However, the official plan to build 300 units of housing on the station parking lots met significant neighborhood opposition. Existing residents were concerned about losing the flea market that currently operates on weekends in the parking lot, increased traffic, and future upzoning of the area. The project was put on hold in 2006.
Shared housing, however, has achieved something similar with no official intervention.
Can the Ashby model be replicated elsewhere?
Using shared housing to increase neighborhood density offers a solution for low density areas where economic constraints or zoning limits the ability to build new housing units. The following factors are needed for its success:
Multimodal Job Access
Members of a shared house with long commutes tend to move out. Therefore a location needs good access to members' existing jobs, and potential future ones. Transit is just one part of the equation – those working 9 to 5 hours downtown. For the other members, good car and bike access to nearby commercial areas is needed for those working retail and service jobs on evenings and weekends.
Catalyst community and clustering effect
The Ashby area community began with just a couple of houses. However, the community grew rapidly as the original residents' friends also wanted to live nearby. UC Berkeley provided a feeder system with many members having already familiarized themselves with shared housing through living in the Berkeley student co-ops. In places far from colleges, immigrant neighborhoods can also benefit from the feeder effect.
One of the side benefits of shared housing is a group of residents will have a lot of purchasing power with their combined incomes, and will seek out the area that meets their needs best. Until most people live in shared housing, this means that a region will likely have only a small number of preferred neighborhoods.
Why not MacArthur? Station placement matters.
The next station down the line, MacArthur, is even better positioned in terms of access to transit and jobs. However, this station is located in a freeway median. As a result, a lot of the land walkable to the station is either paved over, or so close to a freeway that it is an unpleasant place to live. As a result, even though this area has been zoned for multistory apartments, few have been built.
Creating community: the station as social hub
Shared housing in the Ashby area occurred without any official planning – an existing community (recent UC Berkeley graduates) simply moved in. Where no existing community exists, social hubs such as coffee shops or community centers, located inside or directly next to the station, can aid the formation of the close relationships that shared housing requires.
none of the images are loading for me, and when I try to view them directly, I get invited to sign in to Jarrett’s gmail account(!)
The problem: this only works when people can’t afford living alone. In New York, I have a roommate; in Providence, where some of the apartments I’m looking at have 2+ bedrooms and rent for less than what I’m paying now, you can forget about it.
There’s many more people who can’t afford living alone.
Or they live alone, but it takes away far too much of their income.
Even those who can afford it might not want it.
Personally, I find living alone too lonely for my taste.
@nik I’ll agree with you on all of those points.
Shared housing is the norm where I live in inner Leeds, in an area dominated by students. A few houses have been split into separate apartments, which are inexpensive to live in, but market forces seem to have kept those as an exception to the norm.
This seems like something to add to the box of tools for sprawl repair.
It’s interesting to see that Alfred reckons there to be a tangible negative effect in this respect of putting rapid transit in freeway medians.
Unfortunately low-density zoning districts in a lot of cities restrict the number of unrelated adults per unit. For example, Minneapolis only allows two unrelated adults in addition to one family for a maximum occupancy of 5 people in its low-density districts.
Not sure if it’s more politically palatable to allow more unrelated persons (Group Homes!) than to allow more density.
Shared housing is a symptom of high housing costs (relative to income) and exists in places with excellent transit and in places with none. Another symptom of these high housing costs is sprawl. In the case of the Bay Area, restrictions on building in Berkeley mean that people who want to have more than a room (say because they’re over 25) end up living further out. It isn’t unfair to say that building restrictions in Berkeley (and other east bay cities) lead to new development in places like Tracy and Brentwood.
I have to wonder to what extent shared housing is actually something forced by zoning codes not allowing subdivision of houses into individual apartments, or not making it economically feasible to build or subdivide housing with many small individual units. I can think of a couple of mechanisms for the latter: for one thing, the high overhead of getting things approved in many cities restricts the amount of new construction, and tends to bias the supply of new housing to the higher end. Also, parking minimums might well make it infeasible to build a building with 40 1 studios instead of 20 2-bedroom apartments, or to officially subdivide a house into apartments without considerable expense in providing new parking.
Also, on a personal note, when I lived in the Soviet Union, it was a sign of progress when people could finally move out of communal apartments (which is what “shared housing” was called) and into their own apartments that they didn’t have to share with anyone. We imagined that in prosperous capitalist America, this was considered a basic thing that everyone took for granted, rather than a luxury at it was considered to be in the USSR. If only we’d known the truth…
although i am completely supportive of shared living, whether it be in a coop, cohousing or some other similar format, i am not convinced that it will soon be a significant contributor to transit ridership.
in berkeley, you have identified 30 communities of up to 18 people. even if all of these were large communities, this is at most 500 residents living in shared accommodation. as mentioned in this post, some will bike, some will drive. even if transit captures half of the trip share, this is 250 boardings at the ashby station. while not to be sneezed at, it does not constitute a major component of ridership at that station, which had nearly 7000 daily boardings in 1997 (perhaps more today?).
and while 30 communities constitutes quite an agglomeration, it is certainly not a widespread movement. it does not surprise me that these communities are located in berkeley and the bay area, which is a hotbed for people interested in alternative lifestyles. if the example offered was, say, topeka, or biloxi, i’d be impressed with its widespread potential.
but as it is, i am left feeling that it would take rather monumental societal shifts to see this playing a serious role in transit or land use planning. those sorts of changes may be on the horizon, but i don’t think they are imminent…
“We imagined that in prosperous capitalist America, this was considered a basic thing that everyone took for granted, rather than a luxury at it was considered to be in the USSR.”
Oh no, we don’t take that for granted in the United States. We take something even better for granted: the inalienable right to live in a sprawling detatched single-family home!
The solution to this problem is to fight NIMBYism. Here in Toronto, there are all sorts of NIMBY groups opposed to new condo developments, particularly in richer neighbourhoods. Fortunately they aren’t nearly as powerful as what you describe in the Bay Area. Another solution is to redevelop old industrial areas where NIMBYs are much less of an issue. Many of the new condos in Toronto tend to be located in former industrial areas along the waterfront. Unfortunately none of these areas have seen any transit improvements other than a few very minor additions to the streetcar system. “Shared housing” as you describe it, whether it means roommates or run down basement housing is not an acceptable solution because most people tend to associate this with “poverty”.
A room rented to a student with some shared facilities
I lived in such a space and it worked well during my college years and for a while after. This was a good way to make my budget stretch, probably helped my landlord with the taxes, and provided him with a house sitter who liked his pets.
I don’t equate this with poverty. Instead, this is a growing pattern with granny units, TIC’s (tenants-in-common units), and other adaptations to the increasing expenses of city living.
@Andrew: “Shared housing” as you describe it, whether it means roommates or run down basement housing is not an acceptable solution because most people tend to associate this with “poverty”.
If we reject solutions purely because “people associate them with poverty”, we end up spending money purely for the sake of spending money, since any cheap solution will naturally be the one most often chosen by the poor. This is the same thinking that led to disinvestment in public transit in the mid-20th century: public transit is the most efficient and cheapest way to move people, and therefore the poor used it almost exclusively while only the rich could afford less efficient solutions; this led to shortsighted rejections of investment in public transit at the political level because people associated it with poverty. For that matter, the same thing happened to the concept of dense urban living in general in some areas, which is often what motivates the very NIMBYs you complain about.
When solutions like public transit, shared housing or urban density are available that have the potential to decrease resource use without decreasing actual standard of living, we should encourage people of all classes to consider them and try to fight the perception that they are associated with poverty. Politically, this means fighting NIMBYs and density-limiting zoning in some areas, but also fighting occupancy-limiting zoning in areas when that isn’t feasible, and of course fighting for less investment in car infrastructure and more for transit.
Unrelatedly: Surely by only counting cooperatives, Alfred is vastly underestimating the number of people in shared housing situations? Nearly everyone I know in the Boston area lives in “shared housing” (multiple unrelated people in a “single family” detached (or occasionally duplex) home) but most of these are organised either as people subletting from a resident owner or just as a group of housemates splitting rent, rather than as incorporated/organised co-ops. He suggests he is using the term more generally than it is used on the east coast, but I would be _shocked_ if there were only ~30 shared houses in the area around Ashby BART.
The difference between transit and high density on the one hand and shared housing on the other is that you see people of means engage in one but not the other. New York’s richest live at quite high densities on Fifth and Park Avenues, and the upper middle class lives at very high densities on First and Second. Despite its riches, the Upper East Side has low car ownership and high transit use. In contrast, shared housing is almost invariably (I know exceptions, but few) a response to lack of money for rent. To me it evokes Jane Jacobs’ distinction between overcrowding, which comes only from poverty, and density, which many people choose voluntarily.
I live in a share house, and at age 29, im the last of my friends to still be doing so. They’ve all moved from shared premises to live with their partners.
I’m in a serious relationship with someone I don’t technically live with. She has her own sharehouse, also with two housemates, about a five minute ride from mine.
We both relish the company and the low rents sharing provides. I’ve lived alone for six months in the last five years and found it unbearable to have nobody to chat with at the end of each day. If I move in with my girlfriend, it will probably be into another share house.
if it exists, I haven’t noticed. And Im a financial journalist, not a hippy. The only downside is that it does constrain your capacity to entertain as a good housemate checks with his housies before inviting people over.
Shared housing works great for students, seniors, etc. I don’t see married couples and families going for it, though, unless forced.
I remember seeing a news story on TV about 20 years ago about three or four families that shared one house, due to financial issues. The thing I still remember about that story is that each family had their own refrigerator, and each refrigerator had a lock on it…
I love the idea Alfred. I remembered this illustrated description of your move to Loth. Check it out, everyone: http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~atwu/firstcultural/art/rainbow_express_abridged.png
I hope shared housing continues to bring creativity and diversity to your district. My question is, do you have a presence in the neighborhood group? Are you organized to have impact politically?
Historically, shared housing situations only tend to last with continuous turnover or with a group of individuals with a common ideology “apart from the norm”, typically a utopian one. Typically, these communities are quite obsessed with the regulation of private and shared space and who handles what, where, when. But most people living together tend to find their “amicable” equilibrium, and people are amazingly adaptive and resilient in finding tolerable conditions for shared housing. How well the cohabitters get along is not as important as folks might suspect to the success of the group. Actually, Kevin Lynch observed that the most successful (longest-lasting) utopian communities in history were those that were able to take advantage of their organizational efficiencies to give them a creative and productive advantage relative to outsiders, such as the Shakers. (Unfortunately, the industrial revolution eventually caught up to them.)
The beauty of shared housing is that you don’t need a “utopia” to create a successful organized community. The city, not the shared farm or workshop, is the resource. You don’t need an “ideology”. The city is your utopia. The advantage of shared housing is that it give young creatives proximity to the city. And this is an economic advantage to take note of.
So… shared housers. Take heed of Jane Jacobs. Organize yourselves politically so that you are not just looked upon as “renters”.
I’m 43 and married, an I live in an informal shared housing arrangement in the Boston area. It’s not because I can’t afford to move out. My wife and I have a reasonable income and could perfectly well have bought a single family house out in the burbs or a condo for ourselves in the city, but we chose to buy a somewhat-larger-than-we-need house in a dense, inner suburb along the bus and commuter rail lines where we could have friends living with us, because we prefer it that way.
It’s certainly a lot more efficient than living in separate housing. But it’s not a symptom of poverty, permanent or temporary. It’s just a nice way to live.
I have several friends here who purchased homes with multi bedrooms – their roommates pay 80% of their mortgage. As they are young professionals, in 20 years they should make more than the $25k a year they do now. Building equity, but be your own live-in landlord!
If anyone thinks shared housing is rare hasn’t looked at craigslist. There is a huge chunk of the population in America living in shared housing.