Is there room for co-living in Singapore?

Is there room for co-living in Singapore?

CO-WORKING spaces for entrepreneurs and creatives are aplenty and increasing - why not co-living spaces?

This could be the next big real estate thing in Singapore, with home prices at a stubborn high, entrepreneurial activity growing apace, millennials delaying marriage and families even later, and property developers proclaiming to want to future-proof their products and services.

More than just shared living quarters, co-living is a modern form of urban housing inspired by millennial-generation values: openness, collaboration, social networking and the sharing economy.

It's usually integrated in a single building, house or apartment, where entrepreneurs, engineers, designers or artists - usually 20 and 30 somethings - practise their craft in furnished common spaces and sleep in individual bedrooms.

A nice, spirited community culture notwithstanding, it's one that could take a while to gain traction. Living with co-workers is an alien notion in Singapore. Moving out of the family house (not for marriage) is neither culturally popular nor the most economical. And some simply cannot fathom the thought of seeing their colleagues all day and night.

In the US, however, where 18-35 year olds living with roommates have reportedly doubled since 1980, co-living companies such as OpenDoor, Common and WeWork have taken off, all wanting to make shared housing a billion-dollar business.

In Singapore, co-living options are virtually zip. Techsquat, a five-storey condominium in Yio Chu Kang that opened last June, housed up to eight tenants for S$500 to S$750 each a month. 13, a vogue four-storey Geylang shophouse managed by property startup 99.co, charged occupants S$1,000 to S$1,300 monthly.

Both are now defunct. While members loved the concept, it had not been lucrative. 13 operated at a loss, even at decent occupancy. Techsquat closed half a year later, citing "various reasons and other commitments". Since then, no new co-living players have reportedly come onto the scene.

Even so, there appears to be keen interest in co-living among startups here. Homegrown e-commerce platform Shopback is exploring opportunities for a segment of its 50-men team to share a condominium unit preferably somewhere near its office at the JTC LaunchPad @ one-north. The two-year-old company, which has bagged over US$1.1 million in venture capital, described co-living as "productive and fun".

Startups best bet

Fintech startup XFERS, which in January raised US$2.5 million in seed funding from investors including Eduardo Saverin, currently has a co-living arrangement in an apartment near its LaunchPad office. An informal space for pizza and game nights, it's also where its employees sometimes spend the night discussing new developments or solving problems.

Clearly, startups are co-living's best bet. As at 2014, there were over 5,400 tech startups and 55,000 active young companies accounting for about 345,000 jobs here. LaunchPad - where most of Singapore's tech startups are based - will house over 750 startups by 2017, presenting immense opportunity for co-living options in the one-north district.

For co-living setups to thrive here, rent has to be very cheap. To Shopback, that means S$700 to S$1,200 per person a month - an amount that can probably get one a single bedroom in a condominium near town, such as in River Valley, Novena or Balestier.

Location and living conditions are key. It takes a lot to move out from a place many have called home for over 20 years; a remote address or a drab, dorm-like bedroom will not make the move logical or thinkable. Services such as wifi, utilities, and the weekly cleanings of bathrooms and common areas should be rudimentary.

As well, aesthetics matter. Google and Pixar didn't invest in cool, inspiring working spaces - think foam-filled baths, slides, atmospheric lighting and tree houses - just because they could.

Interesting spaces make work less dull, inspire creativity, and attract the best talents. The blurred boundaries of work and leisure should lead to new opportunities for learning and social innovation.

Co-living companies ought to design their leasing structures around flexibility - to attract tenants who may not wish to commit to residency for at least six months or even a year.

Attracting corporates

Customisable schemes could, too, entice corporates which may, for short-term projects that require numerous discussions and collaborative prototyping, arrange for the project team to work and live together in a shared space for a finite period.

Big corporates will usually house their employees in serviced apartments instead for projects - and there is sufficient supply for that in the residential market due to "supply overhang", said Cushman and Wakefield research director Christine Li.

DBS chief innovation officer Neal Cross said that co-living has been happening for decades in the West where property prices are low or subsidised in universities. "At DBS, we constantly look at how we can improve our workplace design to facilitate more collaboration and experimentation. We would usually encourage our employees to go back to their families and lead a balanced worklife."

Peter Andrew, director of workplace strategies at CBRE (Asia Pacific), said that while co-living is rapidly gaining attention in Singapore, there is "no sign" of it emerging as an initiative to curate shared households of similar people, or merging with the trend of co-working spaces.

CapitaLand, when asked if it will offer co-living services as an extension of its new co-working space, said that a "real estate developer of tomorrow must be able to anticipate and meet the future expectations of its customers". CapitaLand will soon launch a high-end co-working space at the 12th storey of its headquarters Capital Tower for businesses, entrepreneurs and freelancers.

Starting small

The value of co-living is in having members "contribute and compromise" to create a better living for everyone in the home, says Darius Cheung, founder of 99.co. When 13 was still functional, it advocated this: "At home, where we feel most safe, is where we think our boldest thoughts and dare the mightiest things."

The No 1 tip to success, Mr Cheung adds, is a dishwasher. Unwashed dishes is the top reason for household breakups, he says. Housemates (who are no more than strangers who found one another through rental platforms) have little incentive to make co-living harmonious. With co-workers, this could be different.

For now, demand for co-living here will be niche, the only takers being well-funded startups, unmarried millennials, or foreign executives. Co-living is also a risky business because of the amount of upfront capital needed to compete in the real estate market, and the availability of other residential options.

But with property vacancies and prices remaining high, it's something real estate and co-living companies can start to think about and offer on a small scale. Co-living spaces here may even become the "garages" of the West, where some of the world's biggest companies - Apple, Amazon and Google - have been known to start.

jaccheok@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 18, 2016.
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