You might expect 25-year-olds in Washington to live with multiple roommates to afford to live in this high-cost city. But the visual of millennials hanging out in a crumbling group house on a stained couch leaking its stuffing is about to be shattered.
Newly designed co-living apartments bring sophistication and privacy to the group living experience. For example, instead of a moldy bathroom used by decades of transient residents, each roommate at the Oslo in Shaw in Northwest has a private bathroom with a sleek glass-enclosed shower and a private bedroom with a walk-in closet.
“When we saw that this place is brand-new and we could each have our own bedroom and bathroom, we grabbed it, especially since it was the last available apartment here,” says Garrett Lance, who has lived at the Oslo with his roommates James Arnold, Justin Griffis and Andrew Krentz for two years. All are 25.
While Lance, Griffis and Arnold knew one another before moving in together, Krentz found the Oslo and his new roommates in the time-honored way of young people today: on Craigslist. All four roommates like being close to the Shaw Metro station, about one block away, along with bars, restaurants and stores.
Developers say more co-living apartments are in the works, an idea they expect to grow given the continual need in the District and other cities for moderately priced rentals, especially for young people.
What makes the Oslo and similar developments different from other group homes is that they are newly built residences specifically designed to make it easier to live with roommates. Instead of three or four people piling into an apartment with one bathroom, these units have private space for each person, along with an open shared living area and kitchen.
“About six years ago, I was helping a friend build student housing near Catholic University and thought it would be cool to provide some of the features he was putting in there into housing for young people right out of college,” says Martin Ditto, chief executive of Ditto Residential. “Four years ago, I found the building at 1734 6th St. in Shaw and decided to give it a shot.”
Ditto says it took some extra effort to convince his financial backers that a rental building designed like upscale student housing would work, particularly because Shaw “wasn’t as hot then as it is now.”
“When I was showing the site to my banker, a guy comes running down the alley chased by a cop with his gun out screaming ‘Freeze,’ ” Ditto says. “Anyone else would have turned down the loan at that point, but he knew the neighborhood and understood that the money would work, even if in the worst-case scenario.”
Two years after Oslo Shaw opened, the building’s nine three-bedroom and four-bedroom units have been steadily occupied. Ditto recently began leasing at Oslo Atlas, at 1219 Florida Ave. NE, which has eight five-bedroom units.
Some new co-living developments focus more on shared space and communal resident activities. Common, which has co-living apartments in San Francisco and Brooklyn and recently opened a building called the Richardson at 410 to 412 Richardson Pl. NW in Shaw, provides furnished six-bedroom apartments, each with a shared kitchen, and communal activities led by a resident “house leader.”
“We do co-living rather than traditional apartments because we believe we’re addressing a use case — living with roommates — that is ubiquitous but totally unaddressed by real estate developers today,” says Brad Hargreaves, founder and chief executive of Common.
At WeLive in Crystal City, an office building converted into apartments, the units are also furnished and include studio and one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. Some apartments have full kitchens, but residents also share large communal kitchens, a community garden, game rooms and quiet areas. At Novus Residences, a reconfigured office building in Alexandria by e-lofts, tenants can rent units for work or for living space that include a bedroom and full bathroom and have access to a kitchen and washer and dryer.
Callie Bruemmer, director of marketing for Ditto Residential and a former Oslo Shaw resident, says the Oslo apartments compete for young renters more with group houses rather than traditional apartments because they’re smaller buildings.
“D.C. has lots of young people moving here, but they’re not necessarily high wage earners like the high-tech people moving into some other cities,” says Christine Espenshade, a managing director at JLL in Washington. “These are people moving to work for their state representatives, or nonprofits or the government, and they want reasonably priced housing.”
Espenshade says developers are emulating what new student housing looks like, with shared common elements but individual bedrooms and bathrooms.
“The rents are comparable to renting a small studio apartment in a new building, but for someone new to the city or who just wants to be more social, co-living is a good alternative,” says Espenshade.
Rents at Oslo Shaw range from $1,250 to $1,400 per room. Roommates split utility costs just as they would in any other shared housing.
“The rent isn’t dirt cheap, but it fits in that niche between a more expensive studio and an older group house that might be a little cheaper but where I’d have to share a bathroom,” says Matthew Despard, another Oslo resident. “Group houses aren’t always in a neighborhood as convenient as this, either. And if you have a studio, you have to carry all the utility costs on your own.”
Rent at the Richardson building, Common’s first D.C. building, is about $1,700, which includes a bedroom with a private bathroom, all utilities, a weekly cleaning, WiFi and basic household supplies such as coffee, tea, paper towels and more, along with scheduled community events, says Hargreaves. In addition, each apartment in the newly constructed building is fully furnished.
“Our members are able to get nicer things than they’d be able to afford otherwise,” says Hargreaves, referring to Common residents. “For instance, they get a really nice big dining room table, room to host and a beautiful living room because they’re sharing the space.”
Espenshade says that zoning laws, historic building rules and rent control in city neighborhoods can make building new rentals challenging for developers, which is why so many large apartment buildings are clustered in new neighborhoods around Nationals Park in Southeast.
“It’s easier to take a smaller building in established neighborhoods like Shaw, Capitol Hill and Takoma Park and remodel it into a 10- to 20-unit co-living building; plus it preserves the neighborhood and creates moderately priced housing,” Espenshade says. “It’s not affordable housing for families, but it provides a solution for a niche market of young, educated and employed people looking for a social living space.”
Espenshade says this type of development works best for adaptive reuse, because building from the ground up would be more costly.
“Bathrooms are the most expensive thing to build, and these developments add a lot of them, but kitchens are the second most expensive thing, and there are fewer of them when they are shared by multiple roommates,” she says.
The Oslo Shaw has two or three units on each level, many with a private entrance.
“We spend the same amount on architects for our rental buildings as our condos,” Ditto says. “We want to deliver cool experiences and great architecture and plan to keep these rental buildings forever as part of our portfolio of residential development.”
The building was designed with a side entrance to avoid splitting it down the middle, adding windows on two or three sides for each unit. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the apartments with natural light in the common areas and bedrooms.
“The minimalist style with the high ceilings, white walls and tall windows bring in lots of natural light, and that encourages us to keep our place looking crisp and clean,” says Pooja Reddy, another Oslo Shaw resident.
Reddy and her roommates have invested time in coordinating their furniture and accessories for a stylish look to blend with the Oslo’s design.
“I’m kind of a Scandinavian wannabe, so the design caught my eye right away,” says Despard. “I really value thoughtful design, and Ditto took the time to put in good quality materials and to pay attention to the details.”
Each unit at the Oslo buildings has its own full-size stacked washer and dryer and a shared kitchen that’s open to the living and dining area.
“We all have different schedules, so there’s hardly ever more than one person who needs to cook at a time,” says Arnold.
Griffis says the roommates cook together occasionally and find it easy to share the kitchen.
Ditto says the kitchens at the Atlas are larger, with a little more storage because each apartment there has five roommates.
Lance points out that all the bedrooms are similar in size and that all the closets and bathrooms are the same, which makes it easier to share without conflicts over who gets the master bedroom.
“It’s vital to have harmony when you’re living with three other people, so the fact that each roommate has a personal enclave is a huge asset,” says Despard. “You can avoid serious conflicts over cleanliness.”
Bruemmer says having a bathroom for each bedroom has proved to be a big draw and tends to keep tenants staying longer than they expected at the Oslo buildings.
“By nature this is a stage-of-life option, so we’re not likely to have 10-year residents,” says Ditto. “But 18 months to 2 1/2 years seems pretty common here.”
While the median age of Oslo Shaw residents is 25, Despard says they don’t all know one another.
“There’s not a lot of communal space there other than the roof, but I’ve heard there’s more common space at the Oslo Atlas,” he says.
Despard says most people at the Oslo Shaw socialize with their roommates and friends, not necessarily with others in the building. However, the idea of carefully programmed social events doesn’t appeal to him.
At Common, both a community manager and a house leader are on-site to help facilitate community activities such as potluck dinners and book clubs, and a property manager maintains the building.
“Co-living is not for everyone, but many people initially assume the social aspects are more invasive than they actually are,” Hargreaves says. “Well-designed co-living space gives someone the opportunity to avoid interaction when they’d rather not have it. For instance, you’re not being forced to walk through your common area in order to reach your room if you’ve had a long day at work. The vast majority of activities are organic and member-led, and they’re all optional.”
That said, Hargreaves acknowledges that Common isn’t the right place for someone who wants anonymity, because the point of co-living is to get to know your neighbors.
For now, co-living seems to be attracting primarily young people. At Common, the median age is 30.
“I definitely see Common’s continued success in large urban cities with a significant amount of economic development and a strong job market,” says Kelley Blosser, a resident of Common in Brooklyn who works in the real estate industry. “These markets attract young professionals in their 20s and 30s who are interested in having experiences and interacting with people who hold the same values. Common easily fosters both of these aspects while also providing amenitized spaces to live, making it not just trendy but practical.”
Ditto has two more Oslo buildings in its development pipeline, anticipated to be ready in 24 to 36 months. He says older people could be attracted to co-living, too, but would more than likely want larger bedrooms than younger tenants for greater privacy.
Co-living is an interesting trend to watch, says Espenshade, who thinks someday these apartments could be a good fit as an affordable option for older people who want affordable rental housing.
“I could see this like a ‘Golden Girls’ scenario with people who know each other and want to be social and live in the city,” she says.
For now, though, co-living seems to be ideally suited to the young people who continue to move to the District after college or graduate school and who want to live in the thick of urban amenities.