Case Study: the story of Gramercy House
A 5 bedroom coliving apartment in Manhattan
This is part of an ongoing series of deep dives on coliving spaces. To see others, visit the Supernuclear directory.
Location: Manhattan, New York
Rented or bought: Rented— one master tenant (me, Gillian) manages subleases
Physical space: 5br, 2.5 bath 3000 sq ft brownstone over two floors with a big living room and dining room
Governance: Consensus if possible, with Gillian having the deciding vote
Gramercy House was started by Melissa, Michael, and me, Gillian, New Yorkers who shared a common sentiment:
We came together in part because we wanted to have the best location and amenities we could afford, and you get more bang for your buck if you pool resources.
But we also shared a sense of ‘value’ that went beyond dollars. As entrepreneurs, the lines between work life and any other kind of life are blurred. We’d all left careers with stable salaries behind to found or help build startups. We knew surrounding ourselves with other ambitious people would help our businesses — and hopefully provide a bit of personal support when the going got tough.
The New York Times ended up covering us for their ‘The Hunt’ column and did a great job summarizing how we found our place.
A few key points the article doesn’t cover that are worth highlighting:
Many people are wild about the idea of coliving! But it was incredibly difficult to find people who were ready to move at the same time and had enough cash to contribute to setup costs like the broker’s fee, furniture, and deposit. Over the three month process of finding our place, 24 people (found mostly through facebook and word of mouth) expressed interest in being founding roommates, but when it came down to the line only Michael, Melissa and I chose to write a check.
This seems obvious in retrospect, but setup costs such as the broker’s fee, deposit, and furnishing were high — about 7x our monthly rent. Michael, Melissa and I split this cost unequally, according to our respective financial means. We considered it a long term loan to the house — but made the mistake of not specifying how or at what pace it would be repaid. This ended up leading to a lot of acrimony that might have been avoided, which I’ll get into in a future post. I cover what I wish we’d done in Managing finances in a coliving house.
In January 2015 everything finally came together and we moved in.
From the beginning, Gramercy House was the base for a much wider community than the people that lived there. We crowd sourced furniture and roommates with posts on Facebook.
Friends hosted dinners, talks, meditation classes, and concerts.
(You should definitely check out Amy’s book)
And we got to build what we hoped for: a base for a community much larger than our immediate friends.
Though there were many magical moments from the beginning, we had our share of growing pains. The founding team didn’t last: Michael moved out after a year, and Melissa moved out after three. I moved to San Francisco for the sake of my startup, but as the master tenant on the lease, stayed hands on in managing the place from afar, with mixed results.
A lot of the issues came down to poor financial management and communication. In Supernuclear, we’ll cover many of the things we could have done better, so you won’t have the same issues we did.
We hit our stride in 2018 and it finally felt like Gramercy House became a true home. Nothing epitomizes this better than when one roommate married another roommate’s childhood friend, with a former roommate acting as officiant and another roommate photographing.
Ordained-online Ross (far right) is available for future bookings if other Gramercy House residents would like to marry each other.
In general, we have been a ‘work hard, party elsewhere’ kind of house — while everyone is social, events at the house tend to be smaller dinner parties, talks, or movie nights rather than blowout parties.
Because residents travel a lot and we all have friends who want to visit NYC often, we keep a central spreadsheet (template) of when people are around and when rooms might be open. The residents and a very small circle of trusted friends have access to the spreadsheet so they can coordinate directly with the folks traveling. A larger ‘inner circle’ of about 30 people has access to a whatsapp chat where they can ask if any rooms are available.
One of the nice things that has evolved over time is a crew of regular guests, often friends who need to come to New York for work. Instead of paying for a hotel, they get to have a home with a fully stocked kitchen and a familiar setup. Residents make their own arrangements for what they get in return — sometimes money, sometimes ‘credit’ to stay in the visitor’s home, or good karma.
As COVID-19 descended in 2020 and people drained out of New York like pizza rat fleeing a flooding subway, it became hard to fill the house. As of this writing, I’ve given up management of the lease, but a member of our community is planning to take it on.
Regardless of what happens from here, I’m proud of the cultural institution the house has become. I’ve lost count of the number of times I meet someone who says they’ve met friends, business or romantic partners through the house.
The Gramercy House diaspora — those who lived here, or stayed here, or attended our many events — lives on around the globe and several have ended up friends and even roommates in other cities.
How it all works
Back in 2015, we came up with a one page document outlining our vision for the space. We wanted to lay out our values and have a few ground rules, but keep it short enough that people would read the whole thing.
Unlike many coliving spaces, we never updated this or kept a central wiki/set of rules. It would have been helpful to do so. But ultimately the house was small enough that we were able to pass culture/norms (for cleanliness, what level of noise is ok and when, guest management) through word of mouth. Huge credit for this goes to Elisa Mala, who moved in in mid-2017 and has done a great job of gently communicating house norms to new roommates. Since people often worked from home, two rules were especially important: cleaning up any personal items in the common area before going to sleep, and taking calls in your room rather than the common areas.
The house ended up being largely self-governing, with roommates working out issues among themselves. But as the manager of the lease, I was always technically in control of what happened. I did my best to satisfy everyone, but sometimes had to make decisions for the sake of the house that were non-ideal for individuals. I’ll share more on what I learned in future posts like <Who does the dishes?> and <The septuagenarian landlady is always right>.
Although this is central to many other coliving communities, we never ended up doing a food share. The house was small enough and people had different enough habits — from their office providing food to liking only one very specific kind of almond milk — that no one felt like pooling resources on this.
But we did buy common supplies like toilet paper, dishwasher liquid, trash bags etc centrally. This was built into the rent cost, with any excess in a given month going to our FUN FUND.
After the first two years, which were poorly accounted, I managed a central bank account through which all house expenses flowed. Anyone who bought supplies sent me a Venmo request with the receipt for reimbursement.
We managed our FUN FUND with Cobudget, a tool for collective financial decision making. It took a while for people to adopt this, but it ended up being a source of much delight, like when it was used to fund a pi night where we were introduced to pizza with mini pizza topping.
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
I’m about to head to New York to pack up my portion of Gramercy House. Thanks to the pandemic, there will be no farewell party. But if there were to be one, I hope all the many characters who have made the house what it is would be able to make it.
Elisa would use $30 worth of decorations to transform the dining room into a scene straight out of Crazy Rich Asians. Angie would use the mystery liquors leftover from her dinner parties to make cocktails. Ross would claim his sperm painting, produced at a house art night, which never really matched the decor but stayed because we all love him. Neighbors Edward and Kelly would perform the first dance from their wedding, which they practiced to perfection in the dining room. Charlotte, Josh, and Michael would bring culinary masterpieces. Mohammed would retell the story of escaping his country’s civil war, which he first shared in a dinner the week he arrived in the US, fresh from a refugee camp in Djibouti. Martha and Chris would reconnect, and we’d see if sparks flew a second time. Garth would ride up on his gorgeous bike which somehow never got stolen even though he’d leave it outside the house for months while he was traveling the world. Sarah, a totally blameless roommate who after she moved out became the phantom scapegoat for everything that went wrong, would be absolved. Chris and Kennedy, who each made the house financially possible at different times, would get a toast. Daniel would document with photos as enchanting as the evening itself. We’d find out if Hugo’s modeling career ended up taking off. Josely, our legendary landlady, would collect any broken wine glasses for her art exhibits.
And all of us would reflect on the weird and wonderful things that come from sharing your life and your space with a new, chosen family.
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And you can find the directory of the articles we’ve written here and those we plan to write here.