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Will Micro-Housing Enable Employers to Call on Workers Night and Day?

Posted on Jan 3, 2016

Porsche Brosseau / CC BY 2.0

The so-called sharing economy has extended its reach into the market for housing for the digital workforce. In this age of micro-apartments, Guardian contributor Suzanne McGee asks if we’re headed toward “a 21st-century of a workhouse where employers can call on us night and day.”

Rather than workers voluntarily selecting their home and those they share it with, the trend is “driven by the economic interests of our employers and the financial incentives of the companies trying to justify a 100% jump in the value of their company in less than a year by commanding big rental fees.”

“Each of these companies lives in hope of becoming the next high-growth success story,” McGee explains. “[T]o do so, it must reap a big profit from those millennials renting rooms”:

[…] WeWork is betting that its new business model, WeLive, will generate some 21% of its total revenue, or $609.8m a year, by 2018. There are a couple of giant assumptions underpinning that forecast, beyond the obvious one that the world of venture capital and the startups it has funded, including the giant “unicorns” (private companies worth more than $1bn), may not remain in robust health.

Even if the startup universe enjoys a blockbuster year in 2016, though, there are a few other considerations. First, the residential real estate scene in cities like San Francisco and New York is notoriously difficult to navigate economically, even if that’s the very reason fueling some of the potential demand for WeLive and other co-living/co-housing solutions. More seriously is the question: to what extent will workers be content, long term, to be presented with these worker dormitories as alternatives to affordable independent accommodation? […]

Realistically, the amenities on offer in Brooklyn in the first shared living space to be opened by Common, another co-living company (backed by blue-chip venture capital companies like Maveron) are a lot better than those you’d find in a typical college dorm. The rental rates, at $1,800 to $1,950 a month, are affordable relative to the cost of a Brooklyn apartment when you consider that utilities, basic furniture, and basic supplies (salt and pepper, cleaning stuff) are thrown in.

But if you move into Common, you’re not getting an apartment – just a single bedroom, which is only 100 to 150 square feet. The mattress may be a Casper, but that’s still tiny. For comparative purposes, the median size of a studio apartment in Manhattan is a whopping 550 square feet, and to rent that, you’d pay on average about $200 a month more, although you’d have to hunt around. […]

Previous generations of young hopefuls moving to the big city and sharing accommodations (throwing up temporary walls to divide a studio into a one-bedroom apartment or creating an extra bedroom out of part of a living room) did so in order to save money, whether to put toward a down payment, pay off student loans or simply to spend on vacations. It’s hard to see how they can accomplish that these days, if they opt for these co-living units. The cost is carefully calibrated: certainly cheaper than rental units (and more available, especially in some markets, like San Francisco, where there is a dramatic shortage of affordable rental housing) but still far from inexpensive, especially for someone in their 20s just starting out. […]

Then, too, I can’t help my mind flitting back to the old Dickensian image of the workhouse. You lived and worked in the same place, and you worked in order to earn your keep. With the gap between work and life narrowing to a mere sliver – one advocate of co-working and co-living studied a Chicago design, involving a glass wall in the bedroom that could be used as a whiteboard for work during the day and a screen on which you could screen the latest Netflix drama at night – are we heading toward a deluxe, 21st-century version of a workhouse where technology employers can call on our services night and day?

Continue reading here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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