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The Tragedy of the Commons

Common, a new housing startup, creates cities without qualities—but it will order your toilet paper

One is struck, at first, by the surfaces: polished stainless steel, ceramic subway tile, acacia wood veneer in an acorn finish. Then the all-inclusive amenities: utilities, weekly cleaning, high-speed wifi, toilet paper, and Seventh Generation dish soap. These details, they pile up on the tour as one is led up from the common areas—basement lounge, kitchen, living room, all furnished rigidly in accordance with current trends—and into the private haven that could be yours: a sparse but bright bedroom sporting an en-suite bath and bedecked with a Caspar mattress and West Elm dresser. The window looks directly onto a brick wall.

Common, a startup newly flush with $40 million in vulture capital, delivers “city living done better” to millennials otherwise lingering on the parental tit.

Starting at $1,500 a month, all this and more could be yours at Common Kingston in Brooklyn—one of sixteen co-living houses spread across the country and operated by Common, a startup newly flush with $40 million in vulture capital and hell bent on delivering “city living done better” to a woefully neglected slice of the populace: millennials either upwardly mobile or lingering on the parental tit, panicked by the horror stories of slumming with random roommates in a new town. 

As helpfully indicated by the folks at Common, the state of the housing market is under stress: “For the first time in over a century, more young, working people live with their parents than own a home.” Twenty-five million Americans share an apartment, with approximately 30 percent of all adults bunking with roommates in New York—where the average one bedroom rents for over 200 hours of minimum wage labor a month, give or take a lunch break. Often, these passing arrangements are entered into begrudgingly and between total strangers who, brought together on Craigslist and out of necessity, may have once entertained visions of building a utopian commune and instead got a windowless bedroom with an innocuous patch of mold on the ceiling.

Common solves all of that, doing its part to present for incoming vessels of human capital a sanitized city life, one without past or texture and therefore more and more indistinguishable from other urban centers. As a Commoner, you’re excused from the pain of arguing over who will kill the rat behind the stove. Instead, you’re granted at minimum six months of access to bottomless laundry detergent and a homogenous crop of housemates whom you’re free to blissfully ignore or organize impromptu brunch outings and book clubs with over the house-wide chat app. All of this—from the rainforest showerhead to the smartphone-operated locks on all the doors—is “designed with you in mind.”

In the ad hoc coping mechanisms deployed against a housing market in crisis, the Yale-bred, all-smiles Brad Hargreaves spotted one large hunk of untapped market potential. Propelled by his innovative know-how as a co-founder of General Assembly—the co-working space turned global education institution hocking training and hiring programs to close the skills gap—Hargreaves founded Common in 2015 with an ambitious goal: to “rethink housing from the ground up.”

Instead they’ve produced a metastasizing cancer by quickening gentrification, eroding the complex fabric of neighborhoods to the status of mere way stations, and advancing a homogenizing tide of bleach wood and incandescent bulbs. Their project aims to remake real estate and its occupants in the face of capital in the “liquid modern” era: frictionless, highly mobile, always and never at home. What a lively waltz! Such a project merrily plunges into the city as a radical, top-down “solution”—which is to say, the gussying-up of a preexisting “solution” (roommates) for a select bunch, a meager Band-Aid for a problem with deep roots in decades of housing policy, disintegrating incomes, and the financialization of real estate. Such muck and mire—the displaced bodies and theft of neglected but occupied residences—vaporizes in a snap! Turns out rethinking housing from the ground up was awfully simple.

The phantasmic millennial Commoner at the heart of all this, however, shares little with the stereotype looming large in the popular imagination (but in the statistical minority): a species slumping toward the mirage of gainful employment through the reeds of capitalism on the decline, college degree tucked under their arm, working as unpaid interns and subsisting on meager service worker paychecks.

The powers that be have carved out a new stage of life for this sorry specimen: “extended adolescence.” Defined by crippling debt, deferred financial independence, and rhetorically melded with the usual experimentation of one’s twenties (open relationships, marijuana muffins, etc.), the millennial of the extended adolescence persuasion can only find a home at Common if they meet certain criteria.

Which is to say if they already have access to cash or its surrogates: $3,450 up front all said and done; a letter of employment indicating an annual income 30 to 40 times the monthly rent (or a guaranteed cash flow from the parental pocketbook); and, of course, a clean background check—to be considered for the room of one’s own mentioned above. (Prices do vary considerably across the Commons.) It’s a barrier to entry not all that unusual for anyone trying to land their own lease for a studio or one bedroom in a hostile market like New York—and instead opted for, you know, roommates.

Common’s “users” are spared the “tragedy of the commons,” which involves scrubbing sinks and buying salt.

A Commoner thus tends to be in the employ of tech, usually white, moving to the Big City for the first time, in search of the restoration of, as Lizzie Widdicombe notes, “the paradise they lost when they left college campuses—a furnished place to live, unlimited coffee, and toilet paper, a sense of belonging.”

Once granted access, they are spared the “tragedy of the commons,” which, in Common argot, is characterized by the petty struggles of scrubbing sinks, buying salt, and other soft trauma. Nowhere in Common’s snappy branding will you find mention of the term’s precise definition: the tendency of individuals motivated by self-interest to super-exploit resources held in common. In the latter characterization, we find the most accurate description of precisely what Common does: exploit for profit dwindling stocks of housing in communities growing short of it.

Through “adaptive reuse,” Common erases a building’s history and fills it with generic finishes and accoutrement indistinguishable from any remotely Instagram-trending bar, hotel, or coffee shop the world over, relying on the “authentic” aura of a faceless city that somehow lingers in the air as a justification for absurd rents. But! as Hargreaves notes about one of the newer Brooklyn homes, “We were able to find a wholly vacant multifamily building. We don’t want to evict people.”

And in the process of opening a new outpost, they don’t. At least not personally. They don’t have to because they don’t own—or even lease—any of their glorified dorms. They’re but a humble property management company collaborating with real-estate developers to deliver a sense of belonging and community unto the people. “In addition to improving the lives of our members,” notes Common, “we are focused on better serving our real estate partners as an operator of buildings designed for sharing.”

At last the leavening hand of disruption caresses the housing market—opening up built environments previously hoarded by miserly landlords to capitalists who just want to share.

That “wholly vacant” building, by the way, is a figment of Hargreaves urban-settler imagination. It’s most likely a nod to Common Kingston in Crown Heights, which opened just last year. Approximately two years earlier, 1509 Pacific Residences, LLC purchased the building, along with three other properties, for a lump sum of $10 million. That LLC just so happens to share the same address as Sugar Hill Capital Partners, a firm that “repositions” “stressed middle-market apartment buildings.” And then in comes Common, ready to drape the edifice in white linen.

Meanwhile, the former residents of the building and the narratives of their departure elude the historical record, but a Google Street view taken in August 2014 clearly indicates the building to be not vacant but occupied.

Is the city—by its very nature and with bloodless capital as its primary architect—inhuman? Or can it be conceived of differently, with foremost attention given not to the discrete nodes of “housing” or “employment” or “leisure” but their entanglements and overlap? Are their relationships what give rise to the possibility of a human city? This line of inquiry might be useful for a company determined to rethink “from the ground up” a foundational aspect of the city fabric. Common opts for another path.

In the realization of their houses, a complex network of contact and camaraderie, an entire ecosystem of social practice is displaced, its constitutive bodies dispersed to the far fringes of the city, supplanted by the inorganic experience manufactured by Common. In the former, this net is predicated on “contact” as defined by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—the passing conversations on the sidewalk, the cup of coffee offered by a neighbor when you’re locked out, the collective monitoring of children at play, all of it undergirded by a balance of public and private life embedded in an area of socioeconomic diversity. The accumulation of these seemingly trivial moments and experiences generates, as Jacobs writes, “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”

Common, for its part, excises the warmth of this community-building and retains only its atomized bits: a greeting mumbled in passing, an Instagram snapped of the local bodega cat, generating the false impression of being within and of a true neighborhood for impermanent Commoners biding out leases usually numbering in months. At Common, a Commoner’s energy is used to network with fellow Commoners of equivalent class status and material use.

Common’s expunging of tragedy from the commons thus takes with it the possibility generated by contact outside a uniform bubble. At Common, there’s just simply no need to borrow a cup of a sugar from a neighbor or fall into conversation with strangers at the laundromat.

This grating “user experience” is a simulation of the shared, common life celebrated by Jacobs as essential to a neighborhood’s health, the absence of which erodes the quality of life. Common’s retreat from the urban fabric degenerates the cohesion and political agency of a neighborhood, cordoning off space for mere passers through. If you’re only biding out a yearlong lease, what investment do you have in the district’s representation on city council, the salting of sidewalks before a blizzard?

Further, this dispersal of bodies and disruption of the social fabric diminishes a neighborhood’s genius loci, its sense of spatial self. While Common relies on the site-specific aura of a city to coax higher rents from Commoners seeking the sanitized nectar of bohemia in heavily policed music venues, Common itself exists as a vacuum—what, in an update on Marc Auge’s “nonplace” of airports and other sites of human circulation, Kyle Chayka calls “AirSpace.” It’s “the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset.” It is the world of fiddle leaf figs, exposed brick, and poorly made sofas riffing midcentury lines.

At Common, this relentless evacuation of difference is premised on that cozy, familiar “user experience.” And while the design team alleges a “bespoke approach” to every home and a dedication to “place-making,” the finished product across more than a dozen homes is unerringly similar. It is not unlike Rem Koolhaas’ concept of the Generic City, “a sketch which is never elaborated.” The common areas do not accumulate the artifacts of lived life; they remain pristine lobbies in which the same, preset networking dances are performed ad nauseam by interchangeable actors before they jaunt to a nicer apartment (or elsewhere in the Common network). “The idea of layering, intensification, completion are alien to it: it has no layers,” Koolhaas writes. “Its next layers take place somewhere else, either next door . . . or even elsewhere altogether.”

The “place” thus locates itself in the city beyond. But that “place” or “aura”—sustained by a dwindling if diverse population of writers, painters, poets, musicians, and working class people—has become a non-renewable resource given present levels of stress and exploitation.

By eliminating interclass contact and housing for a wide range of socioeconomic statuses in order to privilege identical boutiques and bars abutting walled off enclaves all alike, a city ceases to exist as a place of depth. In decades past, the pursuit of superficial beauty over human-centered design generated a multitude of bombastic doctrines: City Beautiful, City Monumental. To that distinguished line up, we now add the City Instagrammable. “What is essential for cities,” argues Martha Rosler in Culture Class, “is no longer art, or the people who make it, but the appearance of its being made somewhere nearby.”

And so we find the true tragedy of the commons, in which falsely benevolent startups like Common lock arms with real estate developers and erase a city in order to make room for “city living done right.” While this process may never be completed in the absolute, it is more and more the case that what remains left outside the walls of a Common residence to ogle is a simulation, one that glows as safely as the interior of any J. Crew. 

The perpetual motion of workers who glide in and out of communities without qualities can only serve to impair efforts to organize politically.

Movement across and between these familiar, uniform spaces offered by companies like Common, WeWork, and Airbnb becomes frictionless—purposefully so. The installation of Common outposts, for example, enables and aids the accelerated circulation of renters prepared to follow employment anywhere and all of the time. One result of this human streaming, often ignored, is its impact on political organization. In a word, the perpetual motion of potential workers who glide in and out of communities without qualities can only serve to radically impair efforts to organize politically.

This “freedom” of movement obviously not at all dictated by any force other than the unbridled entrepreneurial spirit of the individual just titillates Hargreaves; with two weeks notice, you can move to any open room at any Common property, now popping up like weeds across the nation. Jacobs wagered that “almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial.” Unfortunately, she was wrong. Common alleges that over one thousand new applicants come forward every week.