Outside The Box (And Inside The Storage Container) Solutions To Sky-High Rent

Outside The Box (And Inside The Storage Container) Solutions To Sky-High Rent

More American adults own their homes than rent them – fewer than two-thirds own, while a little over one-third rent. Those numbers have been relatively consistent for the last 40 or so years.

But that breakdown is not evenly divided across all demographics. Older adults tend to own, while younger adults skew much more heavily toward renting – particularly millennials, for whom homeownership is lower than other generations at the same point in their lives.

And while the jury is still out as to whether millennials will be the start of a dramatic shift in homeownership patterns, or whether the current figure represents more of a delay than a departure, one thing is not up for debate.

That younger one-third of American adults who are renting are likely paying a lot of money per month, particularly if they live on the East or West Coast.

Now, the situation doesn’t look all that dire at first glance: The May report from rental listing site Zumper reports that the average monthly rent for an apartment in the U.S. is $1,215. That is not cheap, of course, but it doesn’t sound so bad – until one realizes that the problem with averages is that they are, well, averages.

Try finding a place to live in San Francisco with a $1,215 monthly rent budget. For that amount of money, one better be happy sharing a place with a couple of roommates, and probably in very tiny living quarters. The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is roughly $3,400 a month – though the average resident would note that anything under $4,000 is either a very good deal or is in a not-so-great neighborhood. A studio can cut those costs, but the average 400-square-foot studio in a not-so-great neighborhood will still set a consumer back about $2,500 a month.

And while San Francisco’s housing market is legendary for its many rental horror stories, other cities are less extreme but still quite high: roughly $2,850 a month in New York, $2,670 in Washington, D.C., $2,420 in Boston and $2,300 in Seattle for a no-frills one-bedroom, probably a walk-up.

The rent, to paraphrase a great American politician, is too damn high.

Luckily, for the inventive and brave, there are some truly out-of-the-box solutions for having no money in a world where finding housing requires having all of the money.

And at least one in-the-box solution…

Conex Life

The standard joke among those looking for housing in an expensive city is that they can barely find space in a cardboard box to rent within their price range.

Tom George, a Wichita-based developer, heard the joke and may have thought to himself: “What if the box weren’t cardboard?”

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the exact path, but George is building apartments out of boxes – or, to be more exact, shipping containers. He is no stranger to unusual development projects: He previously rehabbed two out-of-use elementary schools into housing units in Kansas, and came across this idea as he was finishing the last one.

George remembered a friend talking about using shipping containers to build apartments years ago. She never did it, but George liked the concept.

“You can’t get into a decent apartment for less than 800 bucks, and most of them average over $1,000,” he noted – whereas he can charge $480 to $500 for approximately 400-square-foot units and still make a profit.

Tenants will also get parking and a patio with their unit.

The project is still in its test-run days, but so far George is happy with how it is shaping up, and is considering expanding the concept: “I’m scouting other areas.”

He better get scouting soon, because the idea is on the march.

In Boise, Idaho, shipping container-based Windy Court is offering units as large as four bedrooms, with rent plus utilities starting costing below $900 a month. Or one can wait for the shipping container-based units coming soon to downtown Reno as part of the city’s midtown revitalization project. Those units come with large windows, air conditioning and exterior trellises for planting. Or, as the unit’s designer and builder Chad Giguiere put it: “These can hold vines and sh**.”

And if living in a shipping container doesn’t sound sufficiently dignified, there is always dorm life.

Dorms for Grown Ups

When most people think dorm life, they likely remember their first-year college roommate with sleep apnea, the experience of sharing a bathroom with 17 people, pledging a sorority or occasionally explaining to an intoxicated stranger that they are at the wrong room and that Dave’s not here.

But in popular urban areas, where rents on studio apartments typically average over $2,000 a month, dorm life is coming back, though under the somewhat fancier name “co-living.”

The consumer can rent a bedroom in a dorm-esque structure, where things like living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms are shared common spaces. Utilities and Wi-Fi are generally part of the package, as are things like housecleaning services, catered meals and special events like wine tastings on Fridays. The units are furnished more often than not, and leases can be month-to-month as opposed to year-long affairs.

“It’s about keeping the good parts of having roommates and getting rid of as many annoyances as possible,” said Brad Hargreaves, CEO of the co-living company Common. “People had roommates, but were running into lots of challenges that smart design and technology can solve.”

The problem is that co-living isn’t much of a money-saver. Prices vary, but most of the units offered by the big names in the industry – like Common, Ollie, Quarters, Starcity, X Social Communities and WeLive tend to price their units at around the market value of a studio – so in markets like San Francisco, that means one is paying $2,400 a month to rent a bedroom and share a bathroom with a bunch of strangers.

Co-living firms’ marketing would have consumers believe that consumers get a better value in a grown-up dorm, which includes things like utilities and special events, even if one is technically paying more per private square foot. They also don’t have to cope with the loneliness typically reported among young workers, as co-living arrangements offer not just a place to live, but also a built-in sense of community.

“Loneliness is a huge problem for young professionals,” Quarters Founder and CEO Gunther Schmidt told Recode. “Imagine moving to a new city to start a new job and you don’t know anyone. Co-living opens you up to an instant community and connections. We have community events for our members to socialize, have fun and develop genuine relationships.”

Co-living companies in the U.S. are projected to more than triple from the 3,000 or so units as of early 2019 to 10,000 by the end of the year, according to a new report by real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

And if you think you like the co-living idea, but are nervous that the roommate might end up being too rowdy, or worry that it is just too expensive?

Good news: There’s one more option left.

You could always go live with a nun.

Nun and Nones 

Okay, there are a few qualifications with this one. It is not a permanent housing solution – living with a nun is a six-month gig. Also, to be totally honest, the explicit purpose of this program was not as a solution for millennials’ housing problems – though, as it turns out, it did end up functioning as such for the California millennials who ended up taking part in the Nuns and Nones program.

What is Nuns and Nones? A group of non-Catholic, non-religious, social justice-minded millennials moved into a convent to live with the nuns for six months. As much as it sounds like it, this is not the premise of a new Netflix show.

Each resident got a room with a twin bed, a small wooden desk, a chair and a Bible, and their lodgings were free.

The purpose of the program is to pass along nuns’ knowledge of community advocacy – because nuns are disappearing. The average age of a nun in the U.S. is 80, and there are less than 50,000 left in the country. Convents have been closing.

The California project is a first for the Nuns and Nones program, in that it involved cohabitation. But the program is spreading: It now exists in Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, New York City and Boston, all of which have cohabitation pilots on the horizon. And, according to The New York Times, Rome has come calling to inquire about expanding the program.

We’re not saying living with a nun will necessarily become a permanent housing option in American cities.

But then, adults have already started moving into shipping containers and dorms, so we are pretty unwilling to rule anything out.