WeWork is branching out into housing, but can it actually change the way we live?
Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just slightly more alone than everyone else? Like when you’re scrolling through Instagram, and you get that sinking sensation that you’re missing out on some kind of deep human fulfillment? It’s not a specific pang of FOMO; it’s a broader suspicion that your social life would be somehow richer, more populated with actual humans, with fewer nights eating takeout and watching Netflix—if only something changed.
Well, that’s the feeling the “co-living” start-up WeLive believes it has devised the cure for. Or at least that was my takeaway the first time I found myself watching GIFs of happy millennials hugging one another and laughing on its website. WeLive is functionally an apartment building, but with all the amenities listed on the standard Silicon Valley rider. It runs on a very modern set of principles in the urban housing market: The units come fully furnished; there’s a laundry room and a yoga studio. But more, there are the things you might ordinarily need to leave your apartment for—an espresso bar and trendy eateries and happy hours. Most critically, WeLive comes stocked with neighbors who intend to become your real-life human friends. This one building, your home, has everything you could ever need, is the idea, including a built-in community.
From afar, WeLive seemed to be one part social experiment, one part endless summer. It was a market-savvy effort to solve the digital-age loneliness that registers as a low-level yet omnipresent white noise in the lives of young urbanites.
The company has positioned itself as a “physical social network”—an IRL antidote to the dislocation caused by doing so much socializing online instead of in person. WeLive wanted to tackle what sociologist Marc Dunkelman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor, calls the “crisis of urban anonymity.” Dunkelman thinks that people living in cities have lost their sense of community. That people shouldn’t accept as a fact of life that they share a roof with total strangers and never, over the course of months or years, learn more than a name and some basic information—if that even.
WeLive’s pitch dovetailed effectively with this theoretical problem among millennials. That’s why its core idea—What if you really knew your neighbors?—held so much appeal to me. WeLive’s co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, thinks WeLive could provide the physical context for community building that we’ve been lacking. “Religion is no longer a connection point for most people,” he told me. “Our communities were built on coming together in physical locations once a week or twice a week. These institutions have dissipated.” WeLive, consequently, was seeking to fill that void.
Last spring, I couldn’t stop thinking about WeLive. I recognized the appeal in my own life, knowing as I did that the further I climbed into adulthood, the fewer of my friends I saw in person. Half-hearted social-media use had become the default way to keep up with people as professional demands and significant others crowded out the abundant and untethered time of our early 20s. I wasn’t wallowing in aching solitude, but I couldn’t help feeling more alienated the deeper we dug into our phones, watching one another live our best lives on highly edited Instagram feeds.
Something about that idea and the solution that WeLive provided—the social engineering of its bold experiment—seemed radical and appealing, or at least cynically (and smartly, from a business standpoint) tapped into the insecurities of so many people my age. Sure, the incessant networking—while doing laundry or riding the elevator—and the dominance of a social scene fueled by free alcohol might instill some ennui of its own after a while. But I was willing to accept neighbors like these as the cost of living in a true millennial utopia.
So last spring I did what anyone as intrigued and terrified by the idea of “co-living” might do: I packed a bag, rented a room, and moved in.
You can show up to your apartment, as the WeLive people like to emphasize, “with just a suitcase.” It comes pre-stocked with books and tchotchkes.
Amenity-wise, the place was pretty sweet. The Studio+ at the 110 Wall Street location that I booked for ten days—which usually costs $3,520 a month, a rate higher than StreetEasy’s median rent for studios in the financial district (insane as that is)—was set up with everything I could think of. It had Wi-Fi, pots and pans, bedsheets, towels, toiletries, and even books on the shelves (Joe Gould’s Teeth—a book about a homeless man—struck me as a weird choice). The Studio+ was a bit of a narrow corridor, yes, but personal space in the building was sacrificed in favor of shared luxury spaces: high-quality kitchens where guests are encouraged to cook, a cozy wood-paneled bar, a terrace with two hot tubs, a workout studio, a laundry room with an arcade and Ping-Pong table, a cocktail bar in the basement, and a lobby with distressed couches and a barista making complimentary cortados. Monthly cleanings were included. Cable packages were taken care of. Downstairs was an Honesty Market stocked with essentials if you ran out of TP in the middle of the night or got a hankering for Ben & Jerry’s. I thought it was remarkable how much trust they gave “members,” until I noticed a security camera above the payment iPad, watching closely.
Then there were the people. Early on, I couldn’t quite tell if they were being genuinely friendly or if they felt compelled to enthusiastically playact the role of “neighbor from the future.” On my first night, I wandered down to the laundry room—the de facto equivalent of the common room at Hogwarts—and played Big Buck Hunter on a vintage arcade terminal. There I met and chatted with an attractive young Parsons School of Design student and a chiseled banker from the UK who were both actually doing laundry. I poured myself a beer from the keg while they went on about how great WeLive was and how much I would like it. If there was a strain of earnestness to the whole exchange—a sense that I’d agreed to sleep in a tower where everyone was drinking the citrus-infused Kool-Aid and wearing matching T-shirts with the “Live Better Together” slogan tagged on the front—it didn’t bother me. At least not at first.
The vibe was carefully curated. WeLive is, after all, an offshoot of co-working behemoth WeWork, reportedly the third-biggest start-up in the U.S., with a $20 billion valuation. In just eight years it opened more than 200 locations in 20 countries. WeWork is known for building a “culture” of its own, in part by plying employees who stay late with free drinks and frequent parties. “They want it to be your life,” one former WeWork employee told me. “Everyone there is under 30, hot, and down to party.”
WeLive is perfect for a German consultant on a three-month project–but it’s expensive. WeWork Corp.
It’s clear WeLive has imported some of that vibe to reach a similar target demographic. “People obviously compare it to a college dorm,” a member and WeWork employee named Jordan Niemeyer said. I’d been living at WeLive for a few days at this point—drinking as many free cortados and beers as I could—when I met Jordan at a party on the terrace. “But show me a college dorm like this,” he said. “I wanna go there.”
As if on cue, someone handed Jordan an open bottle of champagne. He was a thirty-something former hedge-funder who’d lived at WeLive’s Wall Street location since it opened for beta testing in 2016, and he quickly became, in my eyes, the WeLive spirit animal. Before I’d even taken a free yoga class I could tell that the place was a haven for people who, as they get into their late 20s and early 30s, didn’t want to give up the kinetic, optimism-fueled party culture of being young in a city. Alongside that crowd, though, were some young families, some students still in college, even a few retirees eager to be closer to the action. The breakdown skewed male and white, but not in a super discouraging way. Lots of skin tones and nationalities were represented.
But the funny part about living inside a techno-utopia is that most of the time you’re actually just doing regular stuff. Sleeping. Scrambling to get out the door in the morning. Maybe throwing together a meal at night (but more often ordering takeout) and, yes, watching Netflix. The one thing that makes it completely different from every other apartment building I’ve seen: WeLive has its own internal app on which members can post announcements or complaints on something called the Buzz page. (“Anyone have a screwdriver and hammer that my roommates can borrow?”) It’s part roommate text thread, part coffee-shop corkboard, but the effect is that even when you leave the building, you have a digital connection tethering you to it. The app, like the meme posters adorning the walls (“Home Is Where the WiFi Is”) and all the WeLive messaging in general, enforced the tone of the place—a superficial sense of humor dressed up in playful graphic art that belied a deeper earnestness and the technocratic kernel at the heart of the business. I’d seen this kind of start-up-y subterfuge parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, but I’d never lived inside of it.
Inside Kumail Nanjiani’s Very Real Mansion
After I’d settled into a routine at my new apartment, I decided it was time to actually leave the building and head uptown to the headquarters to meet one of the founders. Miguel McKelvey looks like a bear that got really into CrossFit, tall and bearded, with a warm, disarming disposition underneath all the tech jargon. I went in still under the impression that WeLive was a trial balloon, sent up to check the weather on this new housing trend called co-living. It had competition in that field. A mess of other start-ups are jostling to corner that market—like Ollie’s all-inclusive tower in Manhattan, Common’s intentional living in various Brooklyn brownstones, and Nook’s human-storage facility in Oakland. But WeLive was convinced, because of existing relationships with building owners around the world, that it had the upper hand.
The typical resident, McKelvey says, is an “entrepreneur looking for a noncommittal way to try out whatever new project he or she is working on and not have to sign a lease.” WeLive, McKelvey feels, is perfect for the itinerant tech worker of this new borderless economy. But co-living was only part of the story for him. As we started discussing WeWork’s longer-term ambitions—expansion into more cities (it already has D.C.; Seattle is next) but also into other industries like education and fitness—I realized that I’d underestimated the extent of what the company was pursuing. WeLive was just one piece in a much larger play.
“When the idea of ‘We’ came in,” McKelvey told me, “it started as a ‘WeBlank: WeWork, WeLive, WeSleep, WeEat.’ That was the premise at the very start. Our aspiration is to be a holistic support system or lifestyle solution for people who are interested in being open and connected.”
A “holistic support system”—frighteningly Digital Age as that sounds—is the total infrastructure of a human life. Here’s a helpful thought experiment for conceptualizing the grand scheme: What if a single company sanded off all the hard edges in life? What if you never had to search for an apartment on Craigslist again? What if you never had to wait for the cable guy, either? Or find a health-care plan on the open exchange? What if it was all just…there? You join the global network, and anywhere you go there are hardwood floors, good coffee, fast Wi-Fi, and, most important, like-minded friendly people interested in engaging and working alongside you. The things people used to have to piece together themselves (apartment, office, insurance, gym membership) would now be packaged and delivered by one provider. A few months after McKelvey and I talked, WeWork opened a fitness and wellness space called Rise by We. Later it announced plans to open elementary schools for young entrepreneurs. It was all happening.
Soon you’ll be able to “feel like you’re staying within your community, within the network, wherever you are,” McKelvey said. “It never feels like it’s holding you back. It’s just always there. It always works.”
The WeThing, then, was a globe-spanning network of cocoons, all sharing the positive vibes of productivity, a frictionless existence where you never have to deal with practical inconveniences or shortages of friends or the feeling of loneliness. And where everyone wears the same T-shirt.
“Sometimes it just feels good to succumb to the niceties and convenience. Even if, in the back of your mind, you know you’re ceding something valuable.”
The majority of start-ups these days make a business out of solving one very specific problem. WeWork belongs to the much smaller and potentially more lucrative class of businesses trying to solve literally every problem they can, the way that Amazon will sell you a new 4K television and, if you subscribe to Prime, brand-new content to watch on it.
“When we imagine a future for both WeWork and WeLive and the other things that we’re doing, it really is about unlocking people,” McKelvey told me. In tech-speak, that means it’s setting out on a conquest of Napoleonic scale for a monopoly over the entire breadth of its customers’ primary needs. In theory, I’m repulsed by the idea of being “unlocked” in any fashion, and yet I’m clearly a total sucker for it, too—as proven by the fact that I couldn’t resist moving in, that I gleefully partook of the free coffee and beer, and that when they screened a Star Wars marathon in the lobby, I thought about skipping work. The most successful businesses know what we want and how to give it to us. And sometimes it just feels good to succumb to the niceties and convenience. Even if, in the back of your mind, you know you’re ceding something valuable.
Intellectually, I like the idea of living a life with minimal possessions, moving constantly between cities, confident that I’ll have a welcoming network wherever I go (as long as I don’t stray too far). It’s refreshingly un-American—not focusing all your energy toward owning your own castle. And it plays into a new aspirational aesthetic that values materialism less and focuses instead on experiences, travel, wellness, and professional fulfillment. Of course that’s appealing. Who wants to wait for the cable guy? Or wait out a lease when you’re ready to move?
Happy hours hosted in the Whiskey Bar are a good way to get to know your neighbors. Katelyn Perry
But like the perma-freelance future we’re all racing toward, WeLive gives me this sinking feeling that what I’m giving up in security and commitment, I’m not necessarily getting back in freedom. Take it to its logical conclusion: At some point, the youthful gig-economy worker of tomorrow is going to have babies, and she’s going to need to put them in a WeDayCare while she pursues her latest consulting job. Pretty soon our offspring will be learning, living, working, and dying all inside one monolithic company: the many-tentacled WeOctopus. And that gives me the creeps.
Once I was keyed into this bigger game, I saw everything WeLive did through a different lens. It’s a social experiment on a scale we haven’t really seen before, except maybe in the Israeli kibbutz, in which WeLive’s other co-founder, Adam Neumann, was raised. The crucial distinction, though, and the reason the WeThing isn’t a real “utopia” per se, is that it asks nothing of its members by way of shared responsibility or decision-making. It’s purely transactional. You just pay in, show up, enjoy the perks, and go about your merry way. In the end, that capitalist DNA might be the thing that gives it the legs to last longer than, say, the hippie communes of the ’60s.
Then again, it’s also possible that real utopian shit might grow in the artificial setup. I was doing laundry one night and lost track of time playing Big Buck Hunter. When I turned around, a dude my age was folding my laundry for me because, he claimed, he needed to use the dryer and he didn’t want anyone to abscond with my clothing. That kind of sappy altruism was, at first blush, borderline offensive to the standoffish, self-reliant ethos I’d picked up while living in New York City. But after we started talking, I could tell it came naturally to this guy, who, despite living in New York, had clearly not yet adopted its notoriously callous ways. “People think WeLive is a bunch of entitled millennials who want someone to clean their room,” he said. “But it’s not.”
Living at WeLive was relatively conflict-free. The biggest scandal to date on the internal app’s Buzz page was about the smell of marijuana, a whiff of which I’d caught seeping through the vent in my bathroom. The community manager, who plays a tricky hybrid role of landlord, dormitory R.A., and neighbor, reminded everyone that smoking in units was grounds for eviction. Members chimed in to add their weed-related complaints. Others got defensive. One guy responded: “This is New York.” Another said simply: “Grow up or get out.”
There’s an implicit promise that all WeLive members exist on the same chill frequency. Katelyn Perry
Tiffs like that don’t really detract from the experience, members told me. They certainly don’t stop WeLive from gearing up for expansion—albeit at a slower pace than it had initially hoped. The company just announced that the third WeLive will open, in Seattle in 2020, with 36 floors of living and working space. WeWork hired an executive from Starwood to run the WeLive business, and there are rumors that it has its sights set on London next. The broader WeWork company just got a $4.4 billion investment from the nearly $100 billion Vision Fund run by Japan’s SoftBank.
As for whether WeLive can help with the increasing loneliness of my generation, it’s still too early to tell. We seem to socialize better online than in person, and we’re definitely worse, at least statistically, at the stuff young people used to do—like have sex and not live with their parents. Silicon Valley’s inclination is to try to solve those problems by reaching in and re-engineering our social lives. But even if it can get you to a kegger, WeLive can’t actually make your friends for you. The same way Tinder can only get you into the same room as a potential mate—you still have to do the talking.
Ironically, the most organic social incident I witnessed while in residence at WeLive was something that happens at every building in the city—a fire alarm. One warm night in late April, everyone had to evacuate the building. We all milled around outside the lobby, suspended between the reassuring idea that it wasn’t a real fire and the sneaking possibility that it might be. A young mother of two stood away from the fire trucks, watching her kids run around. She explained with a conspiratorial look in her eye that she hoped that the alarm was caused by someone smoking pot. That way they would finally have a culprit for the persistent smell. She was worried about her kids, and she thought this might bring about stricter enforcement.
It’s an example of one of the many basic things WeLive will need to solve as it expands around the world: families with young children and twentysomethings who wish they were still in college, attempting to live side by side, as one. Which is, of course, a problem familiar to any apartment building in any neighborhood in America, ever.
“And what, really, is the end goal of all that streamlining, anyway? What do you do with all the time you’re not “wasting” anymore? Work on your app? E-mail till you fall asleep?”
A bigger problem might be that there’s something dehumanizing at the core of what WeLive encourages—at the center of this whole society-wide movement toward maximum performance. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not as taken with optimization as the Soylent-guzzling, fitness-tracking set. For instance, I’d like to pick out my own wall art and books. And I don’t mind running out to the store, because I enjoy going outside. And what, really, is the end goal of all that streamlining, anyway? What do you do with all the time you’re not “wasting” anymore? Work on your app? E-mail till you fall asleep?
After I moved out, WeLive kept evolving and I burrowed back into my own, non-utopian life. Six months later, I was unexpectedly back on the New York City housing market after a sudden breakup. I find it telling that it didn’t once cross my mind to return to WeLive. It’s not WeLive’s fault, necessarily. The apartments there are nice enough, if a bit pricey. The beer is good and the coffee is strong. It’s probably exactly what a lot of folks are looking for. But I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx line, the one about never joining a club that would have you as a member. WeLive is great—as long as you don’t mind becoming the kind of person who hangs out at a WeLive.
Benjy Hansen-Bundy is a GQ assistant editor.
This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue with the title “Can the WeLive Experiment Actually Change the Way We Live?”