This Start-Up Commune Is the Taupe Future of Shared Living Space

The communal living startup Common wants "people who see the vision.” What's the vision?


Throw a bunch of single, middle-class strangers into a house and you’re generally going to end up with good television or a bad situation. Common, a new company that provides month-to-month housing in high-end, communal living spaces, aims to do just that with its first home, a 19-bedroom mansion in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn — but there won’t be cameras, just curious venture capitalists.

The big, worthy idea behind Common is to disrupt a housing market created for a less transitive age. If it succeeds, the company will become a go-to option for “digital nomads” and, presumably, well-heeled interns trying to make their way in or through major cities. The price tag, which hovers around $1,200 to $1,950 a month, is indicative of both the audience and how plug-and-play Common CEO Brad Hargreaves wants his spaces to be. As he puts it, this is the right option for people who hate moving, but don’t hate other people.

Before starting Common, Hargreaves was a co-founder of the tech and design education firm General Assembly, where he saw, first-hand, the stress students experienced when moving to a new city and being forced to find strangers to live with on the internet. “There are so many people in cities living in these roommate situations,” he says. “We thought, there has to be a way to do this better.”

Thus, Common, a way to shirk the hassle of both room and roommate selection, was born. But he insists it’s not a dorm, or hotel, or a commune — “I never use that word,” says Hargreaves —it’s a new kind of co-habitation space that, he says, defies categorization. Hargreaves says “space” a lot and, it should be noted, is a gracious host.

His Crown Heights space is a four-floor, $4 million building with large windows, and it does, in fact, feel like a home, albeit one owned by your wealthiest boring friend. It’s replete with tasteful mid-century modern coffee tables and framed Brooklyn art on the taupe walls. There are warm — “but energy efficient,” Hargreaves points out — Edison bulbs dangling from the ceilings and each of its four floors comprise a suite of four or five bedrooms, where housemates share two bathrooms, a cozy living room, and a big, well-stocked kitchen.

There’s no question Common lives up to its promise of convenience — the digs are pretty sweet — but its societal promise is more difficult to grasp. Understanding why anyone would pay to live with 18 randoms requires adopting the mindset of a transient. About 70 percent of the Crown Heights residents have never lived in New York before, says Hargreaves. This is why, he claims, some people really do want to rent a community along with a room.

In the ground-floor suite, used wine glasses surround the kitchen sink and there are pans on the stove. Not everyone is home, but the doors to the Casper mattress-flaunting bedrooms are all ajar. According to Hargreaves, the members have set up their own book club, movie nights, and potluck dinners — all via dedicated channels on Slack. Common can feel a bit like a startup in which the employees pay their employer.

The improbable harmony that Common achieves is due in large part to the work of an offsite “admissions committee,” which vets members before they move in. They’re there to assess potential roommates for the usual stuff, like income and criminal history (“We want people to know they’re not living with, like, convicted felons,” Hargreaves says), but they’re also responsible for asking the subjective questions, the ones that attempt to ensure compatibility but also have the potential to create an intentional community where it was never meant to exist.

“We are looking for people who are friendly and easygoing, and they want to be a part of something,” says Hargreaves. “They see the vision. We want people who see the vision.”

This statement seems like the beginnings of a manifesto, but intentional communities are not a new thing in Brooklyn. It’s just rare to see one arise with such vague aims — or profit motives.

Hargreaves insists Common is not prescriptive and enforces only a few basic house rules, like turning down loud music after 11 p.m., but regardless of his intentions, it’s inevitable that his community will ultimately take on its own unique characteristics. The current selection process has, judging by the Polaroids in the house rec room, curated a largely white, stylish, slightly (bearded) male-leaning community of students and workers aged 20 to 40. They look happy.

The house hasn’t encountered any roommate-on-roommate drama yet, but Hargreaves is only as optimistic as he is realistic. “We’ve only been open two months — I’m sure that’s coming,” he says, “We’ll deal with it as it comes.” And if even the live-in “house leader” or Common’s community manager can’t mediate issues — say, hookups gone awry (“I’m sure it’ll happen, but I hope I don’t find out”) — people can always leave within 30 days, either to a different Common building or out of the system altogether.

For one resident of the Crown Heights house, a California tech-world transplant named Jeremy, Common provides a solution to the problem of socializing in New York City. “People here are like, ‘I have these meetings, what’s your October look like?’ What’s my October look like? What are you talking about?” Another member, a General Assembly student named Mike, echoed his appreciation for Common’s built-in community. “Home for me is Wisconsin, so nothing feels like home in New York,” he says. “But it’s been great to meet cool people, and they vet cool people so your roommates aren’t going to be crazy. And it’ll be a good crazy if they are.”

These are the guys who “see the vision.” Both are — completely genuinely it would appear — part of the “Common” type: youngish, financially viable, friendly, and replaceable. They like new experiences, but they don’t like chaos and they don’t like unpredictability. Hargreaves wants to sell them peace of mind. He has.

*This article has been changed to reflect the cost to rent a room within the Common properties. The rooms range from $1,200-1,950 a month.

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