Many, if not most, of us have lived communally with one or more unrelated room–, flat– or housemates at some point in our lives. And in 2021, the percentage of "nonfamily" households reached its highest point in more than 80 years. While most of these households occupy homes or apartments that fit the local zoning definition for a dwelling unit, few local zoning codes explicitly acknowledge the rising trend of purpose-built coliving communities.
As Kelly Cousino, AICP, notes in the November issue of Zoning Practice, "Coliving: An Old Idea Is New Again," modern coliving facilities, where a group of four to eight residents occupy a partially or fully furnished unit with private bedrooms and shared living spaces, are in many ways a throw back to the first half of the 20th century when boarding houses were commonplace in many cities. According to Cousino, renormalizing shared housing and communal living can help counteract the numerous negative effects of an overreliance on large-lot, single-family housing. And for many communities, this will require at least a few zoning tweaks.
Would You Know It If You Saw It?
The first challenge to clearing the way for coliving communities is definitional. What are the distinct features of coliving? And how does it relate to other communal living arrangements?
Cousino notes that coliving, cohousing, and homesharing are often used interchangeably, but there are key differences. Generally, tech-savvy property management companies operate purpose-built coliving facilities, which can contain dozens or even hundreds of coliving units. In a sense, you can think of them as multi-unit boarding houses, which often cater to young knowledge workers. Lease terms range from one to 12 months and can vary from resident to resident.
In contrast, cohousing usually describes a planned development of multiple conventional detached or attached homes sited around communal cooking, eating, and recreational spaces. And homesharing describes any small group of unrelated individuals sharing a house or apartment (typically under a single master lease) on a short- or long-term basis.
How Can Zoning Awaken Coliving Opportunities?
Beyond a lack of clearly inclusive zoning definitions, many contemporary zoning codes include development standards that can frustrate efforts to build or occupy coliving facilities. According to Cousino, low residential density limits and high off-street parking requirements are two of the most common.
As a remedy, Cousino recommends defining "coliving community" as a distinct permissible use and rethinking density and parking regulations. For example, instead of basing density limits on dwelling units, use bedrooms since the number of bedrooms more closely tracks with occupancy. And if your community isn't ready to eliminate minimum parking standards, consider at least allowing applicants to submit a parking demand study to justify providing less than the minimum.
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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.