Hubert de Blignieres doesn’t want to deal with moving furniture and dishes and he certainly doesn’t want to contend with problematic roommates.
So for most of the last two years, de Blignieres, 35, has been renting a bedroom in a fully furnished, shared, four-storey townhouse in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, where he is also working to start a business.
He rented the master bedroom before the pandemic prompted him to return to his hometown of Paris, France. Now that he’s back in Toronto, he is renting a secondary bedroom for $1,600 a month and he scoffs at the idea of letting his own apartment.
In a city where one-bedroom apartments are going for north of $2,000 a month on average, more companies are betting on co-living — a grown-up version of dorm life — to take off in Toronto the way it has in other expensive locales such as San Francisco and New York.
One Toronto developer has already submitted plans to build a co-living community in the Weston area, while another New York-based co-living company is planning to bring 650 units here.
Co-living spaces, where adults rent a room in a shared townhouse or apartment for less than they would pay for a one-bedroom or studio apartment, often comes with other perks, such as dry-cleaning pickup, high-end amenities and — something many single Torontonians have been missing during the pandemic — company.
The home de Blignieres currently shares with two other people is operated by a company called Sociable Living, one of the city’s first co-living operators. It is cleaned weekly and stocked regularly with everyday items from toilet paper and shampoo to dish soap — everything except food.
“It’s very convenient. I hate moving in. I hate furniture, so it’s super easy for me. The location is the best. I’m 15 minutes from the airport — the UP (Express) train, that’s amazing,” he said.
Three or four tenants, depending on the size of the townhouse — matched by Sociable Living — share a common kitchen, living room, rooftop deck and, in some cases, a bathroom.
Co-living remains relatively unknown in Toronto, but that is changing.
Toronto developer EDEV is proposing a nine-storey building on Weston Road, north of Denison Road East, that would combine 26 co-living apartments with 16 traditional apartments. The proposal is before Etobicoke Community Council on Monday.
New York-based co-living company Common is also developing 650 units here, although it would not say where and when it expects those to be built. Meantime, it is designing and managing a mixed-use building in Ottawa as part of a master-planned development by Dreams Unlimited.
Common claims its co-living rooms rent for about 15 to 25 per cent less than a studio apartment in the same neighbourhood.
“I see so many similarities in Toronto’s housing crisis to what we’ve seen in places like New York City and Seattle, where Common was able to add more housing stock and attainable options for renters,” said CEO Brad Hargreaves in an email responding to questions from the Star.
EDEV’s co-living expert Vanessa Flint says while young adults will remember the community feeling of their college days, modern co-living spaces are very different than dorms or rooming houses.
They are beautifully designed homes that offer everything from luxe finishes and high-end coffee makers to services such as dry cleaning pickup, parcel delivery and apps that unlock doors or alert management when something needs to be repaired.
“This is appealing to a whole generation that uses Uber to get around, uses Uber Eats to get their food delivered every night. They’re living and enjoying life and having experiences,” said Flint.
The concept is most attractive, she said, to a mobile generation that doesn’t expect to work in the same place their entire career, that is less possession-oriented and more sustainability minded so they don’t necessarily want to buy their own appliances and dishes.
“It’s not because they can’t afford it. It’s because they don’t want it. They don’t want to put such a large percentage of their income toward their housing costs,” said Flint.
EDEV says Weston appeals to tenants among the 50,000 Pearson Airport-area workers and those who want to get downtown in 15 minutes.
Roman Bodnarchuk, the founder of Sociable Living, won’t say how many townhomes his company rents as co-living spaces in the Junction and on Berkeley Street downtown or in its expanded markets in Miami and Costa Rica.
“What I can tell you is, in our very first year (2019), we had over 100 residents,” he said.
Sociable Living tenants sign on for a three-month minimum stay but there is no longer term lease. Although there are exceptions, Bodnarchuk prefers to rent to singles. Couples tend to stay in and cook every night so they end up dominating the fridge space, he said.
Sociable Living solves a lot of the problems of renting, says Bodnarchuk. Newcomers to the city face a highly competitive rental market.
“Unless you have a great credit report, you’re not going to get a place,” he said.
Then there is the expense: “Let’s say you saw a one-bedroom apartment for $1,750. It sounds appealing. Except you haven’t factored in about $15,000 worth of stuff that you need to live,” he said.
That’s a huge investment in a gig economy, says Bodnarchuk. He claims Sociable Living saves its tenants an average of $500 a month on furniture and housekeeping costs.
“All you really need is a suitcase. We pay for all the utilities. We have the fastest internet in the city. We’ve got Netflix and 65-inch smart TVs. It’s all the best stuff but it’s stress free,” he said.
One of the biggest benefits of co-living is that it provides instant community, something Bodnarchuk says is rare in apartments and condos.
“Loneliness is an epidemic. It’s worse than smoking and people don’t even talk about it,” he said. “That’s why everyone in Toronto has a dog. That’s how they’re solving it — with an animal. We’re doing it with humans and I think it’s very powerful.”
He expects a schedule of regular social events, which have been suspended during the pandemic, to be reinstated in January.
With the exception of one person, de Blignieres says he has made friends with all the tenants who have moved through his townhouse.
“I’m French from France. We are used to sharing everything,” says de Blignieres. But, to make co-living work, there has to be respect for shared space.
“We have to be able to communicate and tell each other when there’s something we do that bothers the other one, explain to new people how it works — living with some rules in a community,” he said.
“When people listen to that, it’s really amazing. It’s really fun,” said de Blignieres, who has lately been enjoying jam sessions with a new flatmate, who plays guitar.
“We have a lovely time together,” he said of his two current roommates.
Bodnarchuk says he’s only ever had one roommate situation that went wrong. But there is always one empty room available so that, in the event of a situation doesn’t work out, someone can be instantly moved to a home in the same area.
Sociable Living is “creating a modern family,” he said. New tenants undergo the usual criminal record check and an interview with their prospective housemates, who can give a newcomer the thumbs down. But a modern family requires modern methods and Bodnarchuk also employs Artificial Intelligence (AI) in matching tenants.
“It sounds scary but it’s not,” he said. The AI, “reads every social media post that you’ve ever done on every platform. So within seconds (it) can read every Facebook, Twitter and Google post. Based on the words and the frequency that you use, it’s incredibly accurate at predicting your personality type. We can overlay that with the other roommates. We’ll know within seconds if it’s going to work or not,” he said.
Flint points out that co-living has been around forever. The latest format is driven by changing lifestyles.
“A lot of young professionals want to live in an urban area. Yet, to go and get a one bedroom (apartment) by themselves is quite costly,” she said.
Co-living is a relatively affordable alternative.