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scott kirsner | innovation economy

Living in an Allston pantry for $300 a month is nuts

The startup Krash billed its communal housing facilities as “immersive co-living” for entrepreneurs and recent graduates, and charged about $1,600 a month for a private bedroom. Krash/KRASH

When I was in San Francisco late last month, everyone was talking about the man in the plywood pod. An illustrator named Peter Berkowitz had explained in a blog how he’d built an 8-foot-long box in a friend’s living room, outfitted with a bed and a fold-down desk, and that he was paying $400 a month to live there.

It went viral as an example of just how crazy things have gotten in San Francisco, where a one-bedroom apartment rents for almost $3,600, on average, according to the real estate site Zumper.com.

New York is the second-priciest market in the country, after San Francisco, according to the site, with Boston rounding out the top three at $2,310.

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And it didn’t take much canvassing to find a local example not too different from the plywood box: A graphic designer named Alex Filho told me he had paid $300 to live in a pantry in Allston.

“It was lit by Christmas lights, and I used the shelving for food to store my belongings,” he said. He dubbed it the BreadRoom.

I don’t think we want to compete with San Francisco and New York on how steadily we can keep housing prices rising. But getting off the escalator is incredibly difficult.

In 2013, I started following a housing startup called Krash, which hoped to create communal living environments where entrepreneurs would rent private bedrooms but share kitchens and bathrooms. Krash offered cleaning services and supplied essentials like coffee, shampoo, and linens.

It opened three locations, in Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown, and expanded to three more in New York and Washington, D.C. Prices started at about $1,600 for a private bedroom.

But maintaining many different locations in three cities proved to be an operational challenge, cofounder Jennifer Fremont-Smith said. Profit margins were thin, “and it was hard for us to provide the level of service and experience we wanted to create, and at the same time be a sustainable business.”

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Krash closed all of its sites at the end of last year. Former Krash tenants told me they’ve found cheaper places to live in places like the Back Bay and Cambridge.

On Tuesday, I dropped by WeLive, another take on communal living that opened earlier this year in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange.

Manager Anita Shannon showed me a $2,800-per-month studio, less than 400 square feet but nicely furnished with two beds. One pulled down from the wall in the living area, with a curtain to separate it. The kitchenette in the unit was tiny, but there was a large communal kitchen, a cozy bar, plus a laundry room with billiards, Ping Pong, and vintage video games.

Shannon said about 125 people lived in the building, which would eventually have room for 500.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinout company, Ori, has been developing a high-tech line of furniture that offers a new twist on the Murphy bed. (Ori was previously known as MorphLab.) It’s building “robotic” furniture that can move into place when you need it, and disappear when you don’t. Think of creating a walk-in closet when it’s time to get dressed, or having a desk that disappears when you’re done with work.

Tiny apartments can feel like “cramped prison cells,” Ori’s chief executive, Hasier Larrea, acknowledged. “We are using technology and robotics to start giving superpowers to spaces, making them feel and act as if they were twice or three times bigger.”

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The Cambridge company has raised some initial funding and has outfitted three apartments with prototype furniture; Larrea said they are being rented out on the lodging site Airbnb as a way to collect feedback quickly from many kinds of people.

High housing prices can help persuade recent college graduates to look elsewhere for jobs — and make it difficult for businesses to recruit people they need from other parts of the country. The prices force people to live far away from their jobs, which makes rush-hour traffic worse.

And if we want to continue to lure new employers like General Electric to town, we need a better pitch for their administrative and lower-level employees than “Get ready to spend half your income on rent.”

Housing for people who make $60,000 to $100,000 a year “is the one demographic of housing that isn’t being built,” said David Gasson, a vice president at Boston Capital, a real estate finance firm that specializes in affordable housing. “It’s young professionals, and people who have good jobs and pay taxes. It’s the workforce that is fueling this city.”

But Gasson pointed out that once you’re talking about people earning 80 percent or more of the area’s median income, there are almost no incentives for developers to build or for banks to finance such projects.

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We can pin the blame for high housing prices to two things that will be very difficult to change — but that are worth changing.

One is neighborhood opposition to apartment buildings, some of them taller than what has been built there previously.

The other is a plodding project-approval process that adds costs, time, and uncertainty.

The man in the plywood pod in San Francisco, after he went viral on the Internet, was told by the city that it was illegal, so he moved. Filho, who lived in the pantry in Allston, went to Los Angeles in 2013. He found a job as a TV producer that paid more than he was earning at a Boston e-commerce startup, which makes the city’s rent feel “more manageable,” he said.

Until we create more housing that’s more affordable and appealing for workers and recent graduates, Boston’s going to remain on the losing end of the equation.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.