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Co-Living Amid COVID-19: Why Is Co-Living Making A Comeback in Singapore?

Eugenia Liew
Co-living may seem all the rage now, but it isn’t exactly a new concept in Singapore. If you do a little digging (or just have good memory), you may remember 13 and Techsquat, both co-living concepts that entered the market as early as 2014 and 2015, but eventually called it quits within a year.
Then, co-living had a short-lived revival in 2018 and 2019, as more brands like Hmlet, COVE living, and Lyf by Ascott tried again to shake the market. Co-living wasn’t that radical an idea, but in a conservative and traditional Asian society where many of us were taught not to talk to strangers, it was definitely not the norm. Back then, even we weren’t convinced that the idea would take off.
Fast forward to today, could we stand corrected?
We hate to admit it, but it seems so.

Co-living in Singapore

Firstly, what is co-living? Co-living is an arrangement whereby you lease a room and share common areas with other tenants in the property. In this sense, it is similar to renting a room in a HDB flat or condo. The main difference is that co-living homes are usually designed to encourage socialisation and mingling in these communal spaces and facilities (think workstations, pool tables, etc).
This concept is yet again gaining momentum in the local property market and is actually rising in demand in 2021, amid the ongoing pandemic. We would say we’re surprised, but the truth is that COVID-19 has completely changed the way we live and work; forcing many of us to rethink what it is we expect from a home, an office and anything in between.
Mill@32, a co-living space by The Assembly Place.
According to a report by CNA, many co-living operators reported increased occupancy rates of 90%, with local demand rising by four times. Eugene Lim, founder and CEO, The Assembly Place, shared that their occupancy rates are now at 98% (compared to 85% to 88% pre-COVID), with many of their assets like Suites at Sophia and 96 Owen Road fully booked and with a waitlist. The Assembly Place has also observed a rise in Singaporean tenants, citing a rise from about 10% to 30% this year.
The Assembly Place started with just six rooms in a landed house, but has since expanded to over 350 rooms across 10 residential buildings. Despite being one of the largest players in the scene, the business remains asset-light, with 95% of their properties under management contracts rather than a traditional leasing model. Today, they house over 1,000 tenants.
So yes, it seems that co-living is making a comeback in 2021.

Co-living Amid COVID-19: Is This Really A Good Idea?

Let’s address the elephant in the room—with a raging pandemic, is focusing on making new friends and mingling with the neighbours really the best idea? Isn’t the Government telling us to maintain social distancing and not to gather in large groups?
Yes, compared to living in your own property (or renting an entire property on your own), co-living presents the openness to live with people one may never have met or know. You will come into contact with ‘strangers’ and whoever they may decide to bring home.
When asked about this, Eugene shared that for The Assembly Place, no one has brought up this concern so far. “I guess those who are particular about this will not even consider co-living. For the rest, the contact tracing and other measures by the Government may be enough,” he said.
In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, COVID-19 has actually spurred demand for co-living spaces. As mentioned, this is particularly among locals. “There has been a surge in popularity among Singaporeans, especially since the pandemic. There is an idea of empowerment to find suitable housing without the need of a long-term commitment,” Eugene said.
It seems that the pandemic has created several new groups of property seekers:
With border restrictions limiting leisure travel and remote working as the default arrangement, more young people are looking for alternative housing arrangements. These people want a space where they have more privacy and that is more conducive for study or work.
Then, there are those who are affected by pandemic-induced construction delays. These couples and families need an interim home until their new homes are ready.
In both cases, co-living is a viable solution. So, if you’re considering co-living during this time but are also worried about hygiene, it’s best to check with your preferred operator on what other measures or precautions they have in place for the residents.
For example, Eugene shared that The Assembly Place has stepped up cleaning and sanitisation from once to thrice a week. They’ve also tightened policies around having physical viewings for other prospective tenants—these can only be done if the existing tenants are agreeable.

How is Co-living Different from Renting the Traditional Way?

But stripping off the marketing talk about “selling a lifestyle”, how does co-living differ from good ol’ renting? The main difference lies in the nitty gritty details of the renting experience.

In A Nutshell: Co-living vs Renting

Pros
Furniture, utilities and facilities provided, get to mingle with neighbours, hassle-free move in experience
Cheaper, more available properties on the market, may be able to customise or furnish to your liking
Cons
May be more expensive, fewer choices, may be riskier during COVID-19
More effort to move in, expensive to furnish (if unfurnished), landlords prefer long-term leases
Most suitable for
Young people who want to try living independently or create more networking opportunities, families or couples who need interim housing while waiting for their home to be completed, and expats who want to socialise and meet new people in Singapore.
People who are looking for the most affordable rental accommodation, those who want a long-term housing arrangement, and people who prefer to rent the entire apartment or house.
Typically, a traditional rental is more suited for long-term tenants. On the open market, you can find many different types or rooms and units, across all residential estates. You can rent a room near your workplace, or a landed house for your entire family. These properties usually come unfurnished, and you can expect the full ‘move-in experience’, from transporting all your belongings, to furnishing the space, to setting up utilities.
For co-living concepts, we’d liken it to living in a hotel. There are only selected units in specific (usually prime) areas, and it usually comes fully furnished, with things like the Wi-Fi and utilities already all set up. It’s suitable for those who urgently need interim housing, or just a short-term stay, and don’t want to spend so much on sprucing up the space. It’s also great for those who want to mingle with others—think young professionals, expats and the like.
Pricewise, co-living prices are typically more expensive than rentals. This is because the residence comes fully furnished and with all the shared facilities. If you consider cost-effectiveness, however, which is better will depend on your personal situation.
For example, if you are an expat and need a room to stay for say, one to two years, then it may be cheaper to rent an empty room directly from a property owner and furnish the space out of your own pocket. If or when you move again, you can take the furniture along with you.
But if you are a young adult who wants a private space only for so long as work-from-home remains the default arrangement, then it may not make financial sense to buy things like a bed and wardrobe just for a few months.

Is Co-living Here to Stay?

In this new world, how sustainable is co-living in Singapore? Right now, things look quite optimistic—especially if more locals continue to embrace the concept.
Presently, most co-living tenants are still foreigners. In that aspect, demand is likely to remain stable. COVID-19 may have reduced the number of expats temporarily, but this is expected to bounce back once things are back to ‘normal’.
The true game changer is what we’re seeing now among young Singaporeans. As Eugene mentioned, there are many locals—from young adults looking for a conducive living space to work and play, to families in need of interim housing while their new homes are delayed.
Who knows? Maybe co-living will catch on and more of us will decide that it is a great way to balance work and play. If that happens, it may even become normal for young adults to live on their own once financially independent—just like in many Western societies.
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Featured image source: The Assembly Place