Co-Living the Open Door Way

It’s like being housemates with a common vision.


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Brent Schulkin (left) hangs out with Adam Elmaghraby, Jay Standish, and Sarah Cabell at Euclid Manor.

D. Ross Cameron

At 8:45 a.m. on a Saturday, Adam Elmaghraby stood in the large kitchen of the house he shares on Euclid Street in Oakland. He plunged the handle of a French press and poured a strong cup of coffee. He had already done a load of laundry; his shirts hung on a drying rack on the deck. Except for the soft sound of birds chirping outside, the house was silent. There were no signs yet of his 10 roommates. Elmaghraby moved into the house—a dedicated co-living space—in February. “I was looking for an intentional, positive environment to live in,” said the 32-year-old.

Euclid Manor, as the house is called, is managed by Open Door, a real estate startup that operates two other East Bay co-living properties. The Farmhouse opened in Berkeley in 2014, and the Canopy in Oakland followed the next year.

This house, a 106-year-old Victorian a few blocks from Lake Merritt in the Adams Point neighborhood, is Open Door’s newest property. The front brick walkway is lined with grasses and flowering perennials, and a Bernie Sanders poster sits in the window above the front door, which locks and unlocks via app and smartphone. Two bedrooms are rented out to temporary visitors via Airbnb about 60 percent of the time. The other nine bedrooms in the gray stucco are occupied by long-term tenants, including Jay Standish, 31, and Ben Provan, 32, the founders of Open Door.

Standish refers to this type of co-living arrangement as the “mansion model.” Each Open Door house has 10 to 15 bedrooms occupied by singles and a few couples. The ratio of tenants to full baths is not too cramped, about 3:1. The shared common space is about 1,500 square feet of living room, dining room, study, and kitchen, excluding decks, balconies, and the backyard.

During a recent visit, Provan made a lunch of omelets with kale and onion for himself, Standish, and Stoney Cox, Open Door’s new head of real estate. Other residents hung out at the long, wooden table in the dining room eating lunch; one at work on his laptop. Provan headed to the library to meet with a part-time employee. Standish, in jeans, a T-shirt, and casual jacket, smothered his omelet in hot sauce and retreated to the living room. Like Provan, he looked as if he might just be out of college, but he also looked tired—real estate startups are hard work.

Standish and Provan met in graduate school in Seattle pursuing MBAs in sustainable business. For their senior project, they worked together on a co-living space in San Francisco called the Embassy, a 13-resident house structured around the ideas of purpose, intention, and exploration. They embraced the concept and the Bay Area and returned post-graduation with their own plans. “We wanted to apply what we had learned about co-living to our own lives,” said Standish.

The pair tried to launch a co-living house in San Francisco but couldn’t get the numbers to pencil out. When they looked across the bay, they found a more feasible price and realized that Berkeley and Oakland aligned more with their concept. Residents sublet space from Open Door, which maintains a master lease. A room rents for $800 to $1,200 a month—on par with bedroom pricing in the neighborhood. Standish and Provan serve as landlords and/or property managers, depending on the house. At the Canopy, for example, they are part of a syndicated investment group that owns the property.

The economics of urban life is a fundamental driving force for co-living—people are looking for creative, affordable ways to share space. But co-living arrangements can look very different on the inside. San Francisco’s “hacker houses,” large homes filled with techies who eat, sleep, and write code together 24/7 were an early example. Other co-living arrangements look more like an extension of dorm life or summer camp for grown ups, with residents sleeping on bunk beds packed in four or more to a room.

Open Door takes the co-living concept to a different level. The bedrooms are left to tenants to outfit, but Standish’s crew tastefully furnishes the rest. The living room at Euclid Manor has a brown, tufted leather sofa and matching ottoman, plush lime-green side chairs, and a grand piano. The kitchen is equipped with high-quality pots and pans and an espresso maker. There’s art on the walls and a printer to share.

For Standish and Provan, co-living is a philosophy and a culture with residents who share interests, values, and intentions. As a group, they are committed to sustainability—they recycle, conserve water, and share food. Open Door strives to create a community with purpose, and each house centers on a theme, like creative empowerment, transformation, or social impact.

What’s the difference between friends renting a house together and a co-living arrangement? In some ways, nothing; and in other ways, everything. “Communal living has existed in many forms over time. We are a social species and form tribes and clans for this very reason,” said Standish, who often sounds more like an anthropologist than a business manager. “What’s unique and new about co-living is structuring it professionally and providing people with a gateway to their community.”

The usual co-living demographic is a single, 25- to 35-year-old professional. A serious relationship can often be why a tenant moves on. Elmaghraby described himself as “probably not the typical resident,” because he has a 2-year-old daughter and shares parenting responsibilities with her mother. “My daughter is a big part of my life. She’s here often. Before I moved in, I had to be sure that the other residents would be accepting of us, that we were a fit.” So far, so good. Elmaghraby said his daughter is comfortable and has her favorites among the roommates. “Being a parent—that’s a value that I add to the house,” he said. “It probably wasn’t something the others contemplated. But that’s what I bring.”

What each resident brings to the house and community is a critical piece of the Open Door co-living equation. “You are the sum of the 10 people you spend the most time with,” said Standish.

Sarah Cabell, 35, and a self-described homemaker, moved into Euclid Manor last fall. “Having a beautiful, clean space is important to me. I’m the one who made the chore chart,” she said, laughing. Cabell has designed food projects and knows efficient ways to shop for a large group. Residents must participate in the house food plan, and 95 percent of their food is communally purchased, which enables them to buy high-quality, organic food in bulk and create less waste. Cabell does a lot of the food planning.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

​Cabell worked with Standish and Provan to select the other housemates for Euclid Manor, a process they apply to the other properties and one that follows fair-housing laws, they said. “We spent a lot of time talking about our vision for the house,” she said. The application included a series of questions designed to elicit what individuals wanted from and would give back to the house. More than 100 people applied. Thirty or 40 were interviewed. They held group dinners to see how people connected.

“The idea is to share the house with others who are committed to share the world in a meaningful way,” said Cabell. “We are a sounding board for each other. We’re playmates. We engage in meaningful discussions about politics and the world. We are each on our own personal growth journey,” she added.

Can the co-living model scale up in the East Bay? Open Door currently has an interest list of more than 800 people. “One of our biggest challenges is property sourcing,” said Standish. They would like to grow into larger, 50-plus bedroom urban settings with affordable rents, but high prices, limited availability, and development constraints may push them  elsewhere.

On a Wednesday around 5 p.m., Cabell poured rice into a steamer in the kitchen. Within a few minutes, two roommates joined her. “I thought we could have a cheesy veggie casserole thing,” she said. The three quietly set to work. One minced garlic, the other chopped and sautéed a red onion, and Cabell sliced zucchini. Their other roommates would arrive for dinner in about 30 minutes—it was co-living, like clock work.

 

Published online on Dec. 12, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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