May 23, 2020

Urban Coliving with Robert O'Neill

When you fly over a city and see all those backyard swimming pools and barbecues, do you ever wonder: What if we shared more resources? What if we had passionate conversations with people next door rather than someone on social media a thousand miles away? In this episode, Robert O'Neill, founder of Haven Coliving, shares his vision for small urban communities and a return to real human interaction.


Robert O'Neill:  The real vision behind Haven was to create a place for people that want to dedicate their lives to the health and wellness industry to gather together and learn and grow. So one of the things that we've noticed over the years is that the typical path that a lot of people take is maybe you go to high school, you go to college, and then you get out of college and you don't really know what you want to do. Well, health and wellness is one of those industries that people are just passionate about from the very beginning. But there's really no good track to meet peers, learn. There's a lot of stuff online, there's a lot of great podcasts like yours, but in-person interactions are hard to come by.

Robert O'Neill: We built out a house in Venice about a year ago. We wanted to create a place that not only created community but also was a place that was close to work. A lot of gyms, and yoga studios, and meditation centers are on the west side of LA, and it can be pretty unaffordable. So in addition to creating a great community, it's centrally located for people to get to work, meet new people, build their own businesses, build relationships, and grow from there. So we think we've successfully done that. We're opening our second location now in Venice and working on a few more throughout LA.

Jeff Krasno: Interesting. The real world needs a yoga studio in some ways, and I'm dating myself with that reference. And yeah, no, I find that fascinating. I mean, I have a company called Commune, which is obviously inspired in some ways around the notion of cohabitation around like-minded people, with shared resources, shared responsibility. So I'm curious like, how does the actual co-living play out? Where do people live? What are the facilities like? Where do people eat? Paint a little verbal picture of the experience of living in Haven.

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. We took over four houses, single-family homes right next to each other. And we were trying to figure out what the best layout for building a community would be. For the last couple of hundred years, Americans have been prosperous. We've been able to afford our house in the suburbs with lawns, and fences and everything, and it's been great. You can't argue with how beneficial life has become over the last hundred years, but you have to also realize that we've lost some things along the way. That's why we've had a lot of depression and a lot of different kind of things that have popped up in society that maybe weren't present in the world of our ancestors. So how do we build community back in? And really, it's sharing space, having to interact with people, having to have good confrontation, bad confrontations.

Robert O'Neill: When people are on the phone or they're on Twitter or Instagram or one of those things, a lot of this stuff you're walled off a little bit from actually having to make decisions based on, “Well, I have to live with this person for the next year or six months.” So it really challenges you. And so, that's the fun part about it is we created a place that you have to share all of your space. So the kitchens, instead of like looking at another apartment where there's maybe 15 kitchens, we have one kitchen that 10 people, 12 people share at a time.

Robert O'Neill: And so, you have to navigate how you're going to cook, how you're going to clean, how you're going to be together. You share your bedroom with other people. You share the living room with other people. And so, all the space is shared within the house, but there's a lot of space too. There's a co-working space. There's a yoga space studio. There's a gym. There's a theater room. And a lot of people use the theater room for recording things like this and other kind of projects they're working on. So there's a lot of space to utilize throughout the property, but you also have to know that you're sharing it with the community because everybody needs access to all the resources of the community.

Jeff Krasno: Got it. So do people, and not to get too in the weeds exactly on the experience, but I'm wondering, do people have a very, I suppose, small, modest contained private space. Essentially, is one's bedroom one's own, or is it really just everything is shared and accessible by anybody?

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. So within the bedrooms you do share bedrooms with people, but you have much of… you've seen in East Asia Japanese-style sleeping pods, so you have like a three-walled side area that you can close off from everybody, but we're really encouraging you to be out within the community. So the sleeping pods are really for sleeping, and then everything else is to be out and growing.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. I remember one of my initial inspirations for starting Commune, and we are a digital media platform but we also have a physical location up in Topanga, where a whole variety of people live, and we make honey, and soap, and media product, and we hold immersive retreats here. But I was flying over Southern California, I think from New York, and coming in to LAX, and I was looking down at this endless checkerboard of swimming pools. And this was four or five years ago. So we were really in a proper drought at that juncture.

Jeff Krasno: And I was thinking about the use of the swimming pool, and obviously, incredibly wasteful from a water perspective given the context of that time with the drought. But more than that, from a utilitarian perspective of like, how often is a swimming pool even used by a family? Once every few days maybe? And just an average-sized swimming pool, like how many people could that pool actually satisfy? And I was trying to do some rough math in my head, allocating square footage for people or something. And yeah, like 25, 30 people could easily be in that pool having a great time. And then that's when I landed on it. It was like it's not only less wasteful, it's not only more utilitarian, it's also way more fun and much less work to have shared resources: a shared gym, a shared theater, a shared yoga facility. So it seems to check so many different boxes.

Jeff Krasno: I don't know if you've seen heat maps of mega mansions that show where people spend their time, and they spend their time in their bedrooms, obviously sleeping, but then most of the other time is spent clustered in and around the kitchen and the eating area. And in fact, most of the rooms are not utilized at all. They're not utilized. There's almost like a reinforcing vicious cycle there. 

Jeff Krasno:  No, I was just curious as you were visioning this project, this experiment, I mean what were your primary inspirations? Was it environmental, social, solving for like, I don't know, what I would say the excesses of materialism or individual materialism of mega mansions with picket fences around them separating yourself from other people? I'm just curious where the germination of the idea came from.

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. You're totally right about the swimming pool thing, and that's something that we've thought a lot about when we started up. Even something as small as the blender in your house, it gets used 20 minutes in a day, and then it goes up into your cupboard and it doesn't see the light of day again until the next morning, where you're probably going to use it for 20 minutes.

Robert O'Neill: From us, when we first started thinking about like, “What are we providing? What kind of different things do we need to buy for the house?” like buying three or four great Vitamix blenders, those things get used 10, 15 times a day. And it's like usually, one person will buy a Vitamix, it'll sit there and it'll be used less an hour a week.

Robert O'Neill: Right now we have 96 members. People are in, people are out. When people come to the house at first, people are like, “Oh, wow. That seems like a lot of people,” but when you walk in you're like, “Oh. Not everybody is using the space at the same time.” So it always feels calm, and it always feels just a place of serenity.

Robert O'Neill: When you're in the backyard and you're reading a book, you can have interactions with people or you can't, which is pretty interesting when you think about just how much space and stuff we actually do have. But the idea for it actually just came from a feeling of our own in our own lives that we had lost community, we had lost a little bit of just social interactions.

Robert O'Neill: My last company before this one was a tech company, and one of my co-founders came from a tech company. We both had offices that we work, but it was a lot of people we were working with were remote, but we never had interactions with people that weren't over the phone, or online somehow or through email. And we just felt like we were missing something in our own lives, and we were like, “How can we create something that we can get the things that we loved in our life, which was experiences from travel, experiences from college, experiences that really mandates that you have people around you that spontaneous interactions can actually happen. So that was the germination for it. 

Robert O'Neill: I had gone through this phase of I was in front of a computer all day, I wasn't being healthy within my own life, and community and health were two things that I felt like I was missing. And I could see it in a lot of my friends. Even though they may not be in the place to live in community, it was something that I felt like was desperately missing within society. And that was something that we were like, “Hey. Can we create this? Can we create a community of people?”

Robert O'Neill: Not some place that you're going to live the rest of your life, but you're moving to LA, you're in a period of time that you need a healthy, mindful community around you to get you to the next place from where you're at now. That was the idea, and said, “Hey. Can we do it?” Can we do something in a world where most people generally don't like their property manager or don't even know who they are? It's kind a world that you're just like, “Oh. I have a place to live,” maybe it's a great location, but we were thinking, “Well, can you create a community and actually love the place that you are and love the people that you're with?” So far, I think we've done a pretty good job of that.

BREAK

Jeff Krasno: I hadn't thought about it as much as this kind of a transitionary place, where potentially for young people that haven't accumulated a lot of stuff, which is a whole other topic that I want to talk to you about around the accumulation of stuff. But for young people maybe just out of college or in their early professional life, as you say maybe trying to make it as a yoga teacher or within the realm of health and wellness, that this is an affordable place to lend but that provides tremendous resources, both from like you say Vitamixes but also community resources.

Jeff Krasno: So do you find that the majority of your community or your tenants, I don't know if you call them tenants, but are in their 20s, kind of younger, I guess, Gen Z to millennial?

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. A lot of our members, we call them members because we're all members of a community, and so we find that a lot of our members are people either that are new to LA, they want to break into the health and wellness. Maybe they're here because there's somebody they follow they're really inspired by that they want to go train with or learn from, and they're really starting out in the industry. They're figuring out how they can find their own voice and also learn as much as they can.

Robert O'Neill: And I think that's one of the cool things just being in Venice, it's like the center of a lot of new ideas in the health and wellness industry. So they get surrounded by that. And there's people who live and work in the industry already. So in terms of just finding jobs, meeting people, it's an easy transition into lifestyle in California, especially if you've never been here before.

Robert O'Neill: One of the things we do is we try to encourage our members to teach classes to other members. And we've had a number of members that have just finished yoga teacher training somewhere and they taught their first class at Haven because they're comfortable with people around them. It can be scary the first few times that you teach to a class. So we want them to share their gifts with everybody else. And a number of people have just come from the place they got certified and are teaching and Haven now.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. It's interesting because there's been, I suppose this elixir between spirituality or spiritual wellbeing and co-living that goes back generations. You look back to the ‘60s and ‘70s when there was a fringe group of people that started exploring Eastern religions, meditation, yoga. And the purpose of those practices is essentially self-transcendence, a feeling of unity consciousness, or Christ consciousness, a lot of different terms to describe it, but that central metaphor of being a wave in a bigger ocean.

Jeff Krasno: And from that kind of spiritual or psychological place, a lot of these experiments in shared living or communes were established in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And that was a pretty fragile revolution. Not a lot of those experiments actually worked out in the end, for a whole variety of reasons.

Jeff Krasno: So I wonder, if you looked at any models for this and tried to learn from any of the failings, and I suppose it all goes back to human interaction and will people be accountable, will people take on their fair share of the responsibilities? And I guess you could even take that down farther of like, who always clean the kitchen and who leaves it dirty or whatever. But I wonder what the reality is that you're finding. Do you feel that people live up to their responsibilities, I suppose?

Robert O'Neill: One of the things I found super interesting is the power of the community. If you do have somebody who's a bad actor in a small way, the community self-defends itself of like, “These are our standards that we've developed.” And if somebody's being messy or not doing something that they should be doing, the communities for 90% of the time will stand up for itself and say, “This isn't the way,” and maybe some kind of way of some language that somebody uses, just something that is maybe off of what the community wants, there is a ground swell. That people will be like, “We know what our values are. We know what we stand for as a community and with the kind of place we want to live.” And the people that maybe it's not right for, generally self-exit because it's not the place for them, which is fine.

Robert O'Neill: And that's what we really encourage when people come in. As I said, we've lived this way for thousands of years before the last hundred years. So this isn't new for the human race but it's new for millennials because they haven't grown up that way at all.

Robert O'Neill: And so when you come into a community like this, we were like, “Listen, try it out. Stay for a month. Don't make any commitments to it. If it's right for you, stay as long as you want. Stay as long as you feel like you're getting value out of the community and you feel like you can give back to the community.” However long that is. That could be three months, six months, nine months, a year. However long you think it takes for you to feel like you've given everything you can. And that point is going to come someday. You're going to feel like, “I have nothing else to give here, and I feel like I've received as much as I can from the community.” And then we try to support people on their next steps of wherever that is. And so we really try to give people an opportunity to come in with an open mind, and say like, “It's okay if this isn't right for you,” because it's not right for everybody.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. It's interesting. And it's also interesting the way you say about essentially that the community self-regulates. And because it's a certain size, I think you said 96, that there is an accountability. I was reading Russo, not that I do that a tremendous amount, I don't want to sound like too fit to the audience here, but I was reading a little bit of Russo. And he essentially makes claim that democracy, really where it's most effective is in small groups. And that can essentially instill a certain kind of accountability, where you start to get societies of hundreds of millions of people, people don't really feel accountable to each other. So I thought that was an interesting point that you make.

Robert O'Neill: The scarcity now is finding a best friend, getting out of maybe some lonely state that you may have been in. And I'm sure you've seen the studies amongst millennials that it's the loneliest generation that we've ever had. They're the most connected generation that we've ever had, but there's a sense of loneliness amongst everybody.

Robert O'Neill: I don't know what the ultimate cure for that is, how people end up wanting to do that. And I think this whole COVID crisis, it's one of these places that you want to be together, you want to help people out, you want to help your neighbor, but you're told to be six feet apart from each other. So we've never been in this place in society either. It's a lot to navigate, and I think it's a lot to think about where it all goes, and I personally don't know.

BREAK

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. Well, I think you're potentially inadvertently solving the issue. Because for me, what seems to be the emergent story here is one of localization, that we need to upturn systems and structures that have been highly globalized and that have given birth to what you call the loneliest generation, where if you're a millennial, you're more likely engaged in a passionate exchange over email, or text, or TikTok, or Instagram with someone halfway around the globe than you even know your neighbor's name. And it sounds like Haven sort of solves for that, because you can't help on some level to know your neighbor's name. You're having real interactions instead of what I think of as private interactions happening in public.

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. One of the things I thought was interesting was that, I was like, “Do people 21, 22, 23, somebody maybe right out of college, are people self-aware that they're on their phones all the time and they don't want that? Or is it they're just gravitating because they think living in community is fun?” And it's funny, a lot of people when they come in, they're like, “I like the fact that nobody has their phones on them right now.” Nobody's staring at their phones. Everybody's playing music, or they're having a conversation, or they're writing or reading.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. Are there some self or some hierarchical guidelines that you either impose or suggest? Like for example, if you're eating at the community table, that's a no-phone zone, or is again that just self-regulated amongst the community?

Robert O'Neill: We haven't put any guidelines in regarding how much time you have to socialize or you don't have to socialize, and I think everybody gets into it on their own pace. 

Robert O'Neill: The only interesting thing that was kind of a community action that I wasn't really expecting was that we definitely have a no-drug policy on the property or anywhere near the property, but we allowed alcohol because we felt like everybody's an adult, everybody can make their own choices of what they feel is fine. And early on in the community, they said, “We're a health and wellness community.” There are some people who like to drink, and that's totally fine. You can go anywhere in Venice. You can go anywhere to have a drink and do what you want. But when you're here, it's a place of being around people and it's a place to have thoughtful experiences.

Robert O'Neill: They came to us and said, “Hey. Can you make this a rule of just no alcohol on the property?” The community voted, and we put that in. And it's not that it's going to always be there, but that's something I thought was pretty interesting that they came to me and said, “Hey, listen. Let's just make this a rule for the community.”

Jeff Krasno: That is fascinating to me. And certainly, younger generations are less, I think, inclined to drink, and there's probably possibly some more options for relaxation. And of course, marijuana is legal now. When I was a kid, it was always like sneaking behind the dumpster kind of mentality. So I suppose there's other options. But I think that that is a fascinating, and there's this whole sober movement, even people that aren't in recovery. It's not about actually a problem with addiction, it's actually a proactive choice that the younger people seem to be less inclined to socialize around alcohol or use alcohol as a social lubricant, I suppose.

Jeff Krasno: I'm curious what you see from a gender breakdown perspective, if men or women seem to be more likely to take a chance on this kind of co-living.

Robert O'Neill: Right now our community, in terms of space, is 50/50 in terms of available space. But our demand is about, I would say 65% women, which we didn't really know before we came in, but largely the demand of the people that want to move into Haven and women actually tend to stay longer at the house. So our second house that we're opening is going to be a little bit more female heavy in terms of space.

Jeff Krasno: Got it.

Robert O'Neill: Yeah.

Jeff Krasno: And is there a little bit of a love island component to Haven? I mean, do you see romantic relationships forming?

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. We've been open just over a year. We've already had our first marriage. The number one reason for people to move out is they found a partner and they're moving in together. I found it to be pretty cool that we've generated so many really close relationships amongst people that they've fallen in love. So that's been great. It was one of the cool things about it. And not just intimate relationships, but also people have started businesses together. They've started playing music together. So there's a bunch of if it's colder and there's just different sparks of things coming out of it.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about the plans that you have, because I think that you're opening another house in Venice. And I believe there's another one planned maybe in West Hollywood or Culver City. So give me like a little bit of the lay of the land on the vision, and do you expect to expand outside of Los Angeles?

Robert O'Neill: Yeah. I think our original idea was that we would have a community that you can go anywhere and like, “Hey, I'm in New York now,” and you can just move into Haven. I think what we've found is that there's a lot of need in Los Angeles, just for housing in general and flexibility. If you've just moved from Europe or you've moved from anywhere across the US, then if you want to move to LA, it's harder in a lot of different ways. One is obviously finding a place.

Robert O'Neill: The Airbnb can be pretty price prohibitive after a certain amount of time. For a few nights or a week, it works, and then it breaks down. And then the only other decision after that is a year lease. Maybe you can get a six-month lease. But there's nothing in between that of like, “Hey, I want to dip my toes in the water. I want to find a place to live for a month or a couple of months. And if LA works out, I find great relationships, I find that a great experience there, and I want to stay here, I can continue to do that.”

Robert O'Neill: We have added a lot more demand than we've had space, and so we've kind of like are really just looking to build out a presence in LA as much as possible, just because we already have a great community here. I think the community builds additional great communities, because we already have the seedling of people who understand the values and mission. In our new place, we're encouraging anybody who wants to move from our original location here to set the baseline of new people who are moving in and what to expect. So we hope to have five or six locations in LA open by the end of the year, which would be the west side of LA, as well as West Hollywood and Silver Lake, and we're negotiating a few properties now.

Jeff Krasno: Yeah. No, you're absolutely right. There's obviously massive housing shortages in Los Angeles. And I don't think Los Angeles is alone in that regard, but certainly there's a lot of need to address right here. And of course, for health and wellness, it's pretty much the capital of the world.

Jeff Krasno: How has it been during COVID? I mean, obviously shelter in place is quite different in a co-living experiment versus in your own home. So I'm curious around what that experience has looked like.

Robert O'Neill: Well, I think it's been pretty hard on a lot of our members, because all of our members are focused on fitness and wellness industry. That's been hit pretty hard from the beginning. 

Robert O'Neill:  And we early on when it first happened, we said, “Hey, listen. Anybody who wants to move out or just uncomfortable living in community, we get it. We'd love to have you back when you feel comfortable.” But we ended up just saying, “Hey. If you want to move on out, we'll refund your money for whenever you want to leave, and then just come back when you're ready.”

Jeff Krasno: Yeah, no, absolutely. My wife owns three yoga studios, all of which are closed. Obviously Wanderlust Hollywood, the facility I built over in Hollywood has closed. And all of those facilities have 20, 30, 40 teachers associated with them. Our facility up here in Topanga where we host retreats, we were booked every weekend for three or four months. Of course, all of those are canceled.

Jeff Krasno: So yeah, the impact on teachers in the wellness space has been real. And obviously, you've seen an efflorescence of online activity. But that's tricky because there's just so much competition. And I think what you've pointed out, I think early on, is that the wellness space is a very attractive and exciting space, but it is very fractured in a lot of ways. And I think that's why what you're providing is so important for community and alliances to naturally build. As a sole-proprietor teacher trying to make their way, stay close to the work, but also make a living it's very difficult, very demanding, particularly in this time. So hopefully, the community that you're providing provides some solve for people right now, and I'm sure it does.

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