Critics of various apartment complex proposals around town have claimed that these are “mega-dorms” and their structure makes them poorly suited for workers or families. But it appears that these critics are ignoring changes that have occurred in the structure of housing, as changes have emerged in a number of markets to accommodate the unaffordability of rent in many locations.
A March 4 article in the New York Times notes: “In search of reasonable rent, the middle-class backbone of San Francisco — maitre d’s, teachers, bookstore managers, lounge musicians, copywriters and merchandise planners — are engaging in an unusual experiment in communal living: They are moving into dorms.”
It makes sense – we have been arguing for some time that market rate rental apartments, even two or three bedrooms, are unaffordable for families. If that is true in Davis, which, while more costly than neighboring communities, is actually more affordable than many other communities, and it must be doubly true in places like San Francisco, where rents are now utterly absurd.
The Times describes Starcity, “a new development company that is expressly creating dorms for many of the non-tech population.” They note: “Shared bathrooms at the end of the hall and having no individual kitchen or living room is becoming less weird for some of the city’s workers… These are not micro-units, nor are they like WeWork’s WeLive housing developments, where residents have their own small kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms but share common event space and industrial appliances for parties. These are not single-family homes that are being used as group houses.”
Instead, what Starcity residents get is a small bedroom 130 to 220 square feet. Some of the buildings have a private bath, but that is for a higher rent.
The key is, the average one-bedroom in San Francisco rents for $3300 a month (as opposed to $1200 or so in Davis), but in Starcity, rooms can go for $1400 to $2400 a month fully furnished, including
utilities and Wi-Fi.
“If you think about the most private things that you do, a lot of them are related to the bathroom,” said 34-year-old Jon Dishotsky, Starcity’s co-founder and chief executive. “So that’s probably the hardest part.”
The Times notes: “Starcity’s target demographic makes $40,000 to $90,000 a year. Most of the residents, who range in age from their early 20s to early 50s, have no political philosophy around communes nor any previous experience in them. Moving in was a practical decision they each made. But after they arrive, what they are most surprised by is how much the building changes them.”
The rise of these type of arrangements goes against the argument made by Eileen Samitz and others, against so-called “mega-dorms.”
The argument that opponents make is that they offer “no significant market rate rental housing for non-students such as our families and workers.” They further argue that these apartment buildings “need to instead be designed as traditional 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments, so that anyone can live in them, not just students.”
In late February, Ms. Samitz wrote, “What you also avoid talking about is the use and re-use of the design of new multi-family housing built now. Mega-dorms cannot be used now or later for families and local workers, but 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments can be used now and later by families, locals workers and students.”
She then argued that “the solution to affordability and more rental housing is simply eliminating the mega-dorm format of 4- and 5- bedroom apartments, and replace them with 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments for all.”
The Vanguard has pointed out that there is a relative small number of five-bedroom apartments being proposed as it is. But many experts have pointed out there is no reason even a four-bedroom/four-bathroom apartment couldn’t be re-configured to serve families if need be.
The cost might be prohibitive, but the cost of even a two- or three-bedroom market rate apartment hovering between $1600 and $2400 on average could be as well.
But for workers, a dorm-structured housing arrangement could work quite well, as the San Francisco example shows. And these models end up being much more affordable (at least relatively speaking) than their one-bedroom traditional apartment counterpart.
This was a point that Sean Raycraft attempted to make in his December Vanguard article, “What’s So Bad About Shared Housing.”
Mr. Raycraft argued, “Recent efforts and rhetoric by some in town would have you believe the interests of students are divergent from those of young families, working poor folks and other groups of renters. Its a divide and conquer strategy, that I hope fails. Renters are at the end of the day… renters. Improving the rental market as a whole will improve conditions for everyone who rents in town.”
As he pointed out, “Who is to say that a 25-year-old retail worker could not rent one of those rooms in a four-bedroom suite with a common living area?”
He argued, “The point is that while a shared space style of living isn’t exactly traditional, it by no means is exclusionary by design. In fact, similar communal living situations are happening right now, all over Davis. When four or five friends get together and sign the lease on a rental house for a year, they will usually get their own room, often with a lock on it, obviously with shared living spaces.
“While the living situation was not always perfect, it was a way for us to share space, and thrive in Davis,” he said.
Those arguing these arrangements can’t work are ignoring the fact that they are working, both in Davis and elsewhere.
As the New York Times article points out, these professional dorms are not just serving people in their twenties. They chronicle the story of 37-year-old Katherine McKim. “Ms. McKim had worked for Penguin Random House in New York but always admired the San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books, so when she and her husband divorced, she packed up and moved out,” they write.
“Everybody told me housing in San Francisco was really expensive, but I was like, ‘I live in New York, how much more expensive can it be?’” she said. “I was a bit cocky.”
Now she has a room for $2050 a month with enough space for a dog bed for her companion and a full-sized bed for herself with a TV, mini fridge, and a sink.
As the housing crisis intensifies locally and regionally, we must become innovative and find ways to make less than ideal circumstances work. No longer can the answer simply be “no” because we think an arrangement is untraditional or will not work. That is what Starcity demonstrates in San Francisco, and what some of these apartment complexes might end up proving here in Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting