These startups are betting the house on co-living

A look at Roomi, Common and other firms in the space

Ajay Hargreaves
From left: Ajay Yadav, Common's Brad Hargreaves and a cartoon depicting co-living

When Ajay Yadav first began telling landlords and brokers about his startup Roomi, a sort of Tinder for roommates, he was surprised by how many of them swiped left.

The roommate-matching startup’s potential market in New York, where most young people share pads, is huge. And yet Yadav found that real estate executives didn’t see the product as relevant to them.

“I think it’s because the tenant goes through the struggle [of finding a roommate], not the landlord,” he said. Today, however, the equation has changed, partly because Roomi is armed with $2.66 million in venture funding and around 120,000 users. But also because a growing number of industry folk now think that shared living does, in fact, concern them.

Historically, the real estate industry has been good at adapting to shifts in the way people live. When the rise of the car slashed commuting times, developers began plastering the country with suburban homes and motels. When the wealthy took a fancy to living in skyscrapers, along came supertalls like One57 and 432 Park.

Shared living is one of the exceptions to this rule – at least so far. Nearly a third of Americans currently live with someone other than their spouse or partner, according to a recent Zillow analysis of census data. In New York, the number of people living with roommates jumped 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. But this trend was ignored by the industry — until very recently.

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In 2014, both Roomi and its competitor Symbi launched apps that allow users to look at listing photos, browse through dating-app style profiles of potential roommates and message each other. Eventually, Yadav hopes Roomi will let users do background checks, due diligence and rent payments through the app as well.

Yadav, who hails from India, says he came up with the idea for Roomi six years ago when his roommate in Manhattan robbed him and fled. He argues that his startup reduces the risk of such bad encounters by putting more information about a prospective roommate online. “Roomi has more female than male users,” he said. “Women are looking for safety.”

Another breed of startups tapping the shared-living movement are those offering dorm-like housing. Common, which was founded this year and raised $7.35 million in a Series A in July, plans to turn brownstones into co-living spaces, where tenants rent rooms on a month-to-month basis and share common spaces like kitchens. The firm is set to launch its first buildings in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant this fall.

WeWork is pursuing a similar strategy, albeit on a far larger scale. The coworking space giant’s first WeLive co-living space in New York is expected to open next year at Rudin Management’s 110 Wall Street, with 216 micro units available for short-term rent.

Another landlord, Hudson Companies, is baking the shared-living trend into the design of its rentals. Alison Novak, a principal at the firm, said that apartments designed for roommates have more space between bedrooms to allow for privacy. “When we are designing apartments we consider how many of the prospective renters will skew towards roommates versus families, and create floor plans that we think are more suitable,” she said.