Behind the gleaming buildings of Gurugram’s Cyber City is a maze of roads flanked by commercial and residential structures, all in a jumbled sprawl. Three-storeyed builder floors jostle for space with neighbourhood grocery stores, and a couple of small hotels are squeezed in along with cafes and a local market. A tangle of electric wires crisscrosses the narrow roads. Amid this disorganised stretch is a neat building with frosted glass panes and a bright blue sign with the words Zolo Dawn. The tidy reception area resembles that of a small hotel. Beyond it is a long corridor with a row of rooms on either side. A few young men mill around in the corridor, chatting with a camaraderie uncharacteristic of hotel guests.

This is a shared living space run by Zolo, one of a growing number of companies providing community living or co-living – a concept that is gaining popularity in India. Mainly targeted at young working professionals and university students, co-living spaces such as Zolo, CoHo, StayAbode and SimplyGuest offer shared housing with a range of services and amenities such as food, housekeeping, maintenance and Wi-Fi.

Robin Laha has been a resident at Zolo Dawn for the last few months. A native of Varanasi, he enjoys the comfort of staying close to his office in Gurugram’s Cyber City and finds co-living stress-free. Laha appreciates the convenience of using a mobile application to pay his monthly rent or log a maintenance complaint. He also likes that there is always someone around when he gets back from work – “you never get lonely.”

Photo courtesy: CoHo.

What is co-living?

Co-living has existed in different forms. But in its more modern avatar, it’s a form of furnished housing managed by companies that offer shared living spaces with a host of facilities and amenities. These spaces may be structured within a variety of residential buildings, like villas or apartments, but they all focus on shared areas like a kitchen, utility area, lounge and work space, with private or shared bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms. Monthly rental usually covers housekeeping, appliances, high speed Wi-Fi, community gatherings, security, utility payments and at least one meal. Some co-living spaces also provide areas with gaming consoles, pool tables, libraries and access to a gym and pool.

Statistics show that most single working professionals spend less than an hour in the kitchen and lounge area, while spending a majority of their time in their bedrooms. With the rental cost of a bedroom being around 40% of the total rent, co-living providers aim to use space more efficiently by sharing the costs of less-used public spaces among several people.

Some reports attribute the origins of the modern concept of co-living to Denmark, where groups of families in the 1960s built a community project, motivated by an article that came out at the time headlined Children Should Have One Hundred Parents. Others believe the current concept possibly has its roots in hacker houses, where entrepreneurs could share a space and get a cheap place to sleep. This evolved from a cheap bunk bed to more comfortable housing, when young tech professionals in the San Francisco area began to rent estates, and transform them for entrepreneurs looking for more permanent accommodation, shared meals and group activities.

The focus is on creating a community spirit. Photo courtesy: CoHo.

In India, the concept was introduced around 2015, with the advent of some of the early co-living companies like Nestaway. After that entered several tech startups, most of them providing accommodation to working millennials, students and single parents in corporate urban hubs such as Bengaluru, Gurugram, Noida, Delhi, Pune and coaching centres like Kota. Today, there are many players in the market, and CoHo, Zolo, StayAbode and SimplyGuest put together provide accommodation to approximately 19,000 residents in various cities.

Draw for millennials

“Being in a different city and managing everything for your own accommodation is a pain point for millennials,” said John Jacob, associate vice president at CoHo, a technology startup that operates over 50 properties across Delhi-National Capital Region with more than 2,000 residents. “Shared accommodations like CoHo provide bundled offerings...You are charged a monthly fee, which includes all your services and amenities [while a] strong online concierge system makes sure you have a comfortable stay.”

A study by Nielsen found that single person households in urban areas have increased by 35% between 2007 and 2017, primarily due to millennials migrating to urban centres for job opportunities. Frequent changes in jobs and locations are not unusual, with urban millennials making the switch in approximately 20 months. This explains why co-living is popular around commercial districts, and some co-living providers have partnered with universities and companies, offering accommodation at shared properties within the vicinity.

There are always drawbacks when living with others such as limited privacy, an untidy roommate or no guests allowed in the rooms or for overnight stays (they can visit the common areas and attend events). But for most, the convenience and experience outweigh these disadvantages.

Inside Zolo Opaline, Chennai. Photo courtesy: Zolo.

SimplyGuest, started in 2015, is a technology-based platform for private and shared rental spaces. The founders, Subbu Athikunte and Mayank Pokharna, see co-living as a solution to the dearth of suitable accommodation for single people.

“The share of singles needing accommodation has increased more than other segments,” they said. “Nearly all the existing inventory of houses is built for families. Our residents can lean on our cooks’ network, and we have tied up with local meal delivery services as well. They can order any of this and use our built-in split expense system to share expenses with other flatmates.”

Landlord discrimination against single individuals, especially when trying to rent accommodation within a housing society, is rampant. Dogs and bachelors not allowed is a common directive of many Resident Welfare Associations. Uday Lakkar, founder of CoHo, recalls being turned away from residential societies in Gurugram during his time at McKinsey, as he wanted to stay with his other bachelor friends. Athikunte and Pokharna emphasise SimplyGuest’s no-discrimination policy: “In fact, we encourage all kinds of people to live in our properties, and have specifically designed cartoons to educate people.”

The cost of co-living is an important factor in their popularity. The monthly rent for an apartment in Gurugram around DLF Phase 3 (where Zolo Dawn is located) can range from Rs 9,500 for a one-bedroom furnished apartment to Rs 40,000-50,000 for a three-bedroom one. Depending on single, double or triple room occupancy, monthly rentals at co-living spaces range between Rs 9,000 and Rs 30,000, with most of them offering all their services and at least one meal.

A library club at Zolo Opaline, Chennai. Photo credit: Zolo.

Twenty-three-year-old Dheeraj Mohan checked several options in Gurugram before zeroing in on CoHo. “You don’t have to worry about food, all the appliances work, [they have] nice interiors and great flexibility,” said Mohan. “When my previous roommate was not comfortable running the AC at night, a change of room was arranged with no hassle.”

Viral Chhajer, founder of StayAbode, which currently has 700 residents across Bengaluru, likens co-living spaces to “having your mother around”.

Sense of community

By 2021, India will become the world’s youngest country with 64% of the population between 20 and 35 years. Reports suggest this demographic is more focused on access than ownership. Technology and the convenience of having everything at their fingertips are important. But along with this instant connectivity, there is also isolation.

Studies suggest more than 40% of millennials suffer from chronic loneliness. With co-living, there is an effort to engage the residents beyond just providing them with a roommate or flatmate. Organised activities ranging from poker or bingo nights to stand-up comedy events and food tastings are organised on a regular basis. For 21-year-old Kashika Gupta, a law student, these events are the best part of co-living. “We may not have time to interact on a daily basis, but at these events everyone mixes,” said Gupta.

Diverse cultures abound at co-living spaces. “We have a wide variety of people: singles, separated, single mothers, middle-aged, couples,” said Athikunte and Pokarna.“We have different kinds of properties that serve different needs.” Zolo Select is a more premium offering, which attracts slightly older professionals (above 40) and couples.

Photo courtesy: CoHo.

Real estate impact

Though many of these start-ups negotiate directly with home owners to manage their properties, there are some who also have tie-ups with real estate developers. “Globally, residential real estate provides good returns and around 60% of the total assets are used for rental arrangements under various financial structures,” said Nikhil Sikri, chief executive officer of Zolo. “In India, the majority of residential assets are built for end-user sale. Purpose-built rental housing would be less than 10%.” Sikri feels this will gradually change as developers and investors see the advantages of alternative housing like co-living spaces.

“Typical average yield for residential properties has been 1.5-3% and co-living spaces offer higher yield, up to 8-12% for the asset owners,” said Jacob. “Average cost of living for the residents will also come down since utilisation of real estate and economies of scale will be higher in co-living spaces.”

Chhajer says StayAbode has seen more attention from large developers, and hopes this will result in large format spaces that can accommodate increased numbers.

Photo courtesy: CoHo.

SimplyGuest has been approached by some builders and homeowners to custom build properties for them. “Co-living offers attractive long-term returns,” its founders said. “We haven’t vacated any of our properties in the last three and a half years [and] all these years have resulted in consistent month-on-month rent.” The concept can also be extended to a different demographic, like senior citizens. All these companies recognise this as a niche that can be explored, though it will require preparation and different infrastructure.

Co-living is still in its early stages in India but it is encouraging to see innovation and variety in this space. The clean interiors and services provided may be some of the reasons several millennials are drawn to it. But it is the social connection that is emphasised by many of the residents, including 24-year-old Sagar Batra from Jind, one of the residents at CoHo in Gurugram. “When you see any of the other residents around, it’s nice that they greet you and smile at you,” said Batra. “If you are feeling homesick or lonely, there is always someone around to talk to or distract you. That’s important.”