By Sonam Vashi
When Tamara Coleman came back to Atlanta after working for a consulting firm in San Francisco, she wanted to bring the tech capital’s coworking and co-living trends to the South. But after she began advertising online, she started receiving dozens of applicants looking for affordable housing.
“They’re like, ‘Hey, I literally make $30,000 or $20,000 a year, and I just need a safe, affordable place to stay,’” Coleman said. “So, after doing more research, the light bulb kind of went on for me where I realized that it shouldn’t just be an exclusive place for people who make a good salary here.”
That realization radically changed Coleman’s mission and birthed Co-LaB, a startup that provides low-cost housing and financial support to those making less than $24,000 per year. Residents live together in a four- or five-bedroom house, sharing kitchen or common spaces and saving money to put a down payment on a house, go back to school, build credit, or make a career change.
Co-LaB is a departure from most other co-living models. Most millennial-targeted, dorm-like experiments are like WeLive, the housing-focused offshoot of coworking conglomerate WeWork, which advertises itself as a “movement toward a new way of living.” These spaces tend to envision themselves as urban utopias, where creative, single 20-somethings choose to live in an Instagram-ready environment and create “real“ connections with one another—over sunrise yoga and fruit water—all for $1,500 per month.
Coleman wanted to transpose that model for those that needed it more. Even though Atlanta is a much more affordable city than San Francisco or New York, “it’s affordable for people who can afford it,” Coleman said. “People were constantly like, ‘Do I pay my car note this month, or do I pay my rent? Do I get groceries this month, or do I pay my rent?’ It was constantly this paralyzing decision that a lot of people were having to make because of the rent being so high.”
Those targeted by Co-LaB—people making less than half of the area median income—account for about 30% of Atlanta’s households, a group that has struggled to find affordable housing as rents rise in the city. Policies like the inclusionary zoning rules adopted by the city earlier this year are affordable to households making 60%-80% of the area median income instead. (Similar co-living models in Atlanta like PadSplit, which partners with landlords to turn single-family homes into multiple-units and increase rent profits, are also aimed at providing affordable housing to those making less than 50% of the area median income.)
So far, Co-LaB has had 16 residents in two separate homes in South Atlanta and College Park. Rents tend to range from $500 to $750, and the startup also provides furnished homes and flexible leases to accommodate a variety of needs. Each home has an appointed community manager, who helps foster community among residents as well as manage any disputes or maintenance needs. Coleman helps residents devise a financial accountability plan to help them meet goals and save money.
Danee’ta Shine, 30, has been a Co-LaB resident for more than a year. When she was looking to leave her job to pursue acting, she started looking around for rents that she could afford with a potentially irregular paycheck. She knew Coleman from college, and Co-LaB seemed like a good fit.
“It kind of fell into place,” Shine said. “And at that time, I was transitioning to contract work, and I knew that I needed something that would be budget friendly. For the amenities that are offered and also just the general support, it’s great.”
During her time at Co-LaB, she’s learned more about how to be financially stable as a contractor. She’s almost earned her real estate license, which she hopes will provide her with the income and flexibility necessary to continue her acting career.
“I think the intentional community-building is hands down what sets it apart from any other co-living space,” Shine said. “It’s kind of the camaraderie of being in the muck together, you know, even though our goals are different, we are all striving for them, we’re struggling through them. We’re having to reroute sometimes, change, rethink, but still, at the same time, steadily trying to move forward.”
She’s also the community manager of one of the homes, and she puts on events—holiday parties, taco nights—to help grow that community. Shine is thinking about moving out to her own space in the near future but thinks she’ll be at Co-LaB for a little while longer.
Coleman is at a stage where she needs capital to buy more homes, expand the startup, and keep rents as low as possible. She’s now a fellow with the Center for Civic Innovation social entrepreneurship program, which provides business development mentorship and training, and she’s planning on setting Co-LaB’s next stage after the fellowship ends next spring.
By targeting those making lower incomes,” Coleman said, Co-LaB could combine affordable housing solutions with what’s best about the trendy, pricier startups: human connection and personal growth.
“We have a lot of ‘purpose’ conversations,” she said. “‘What are some of the things that you’re passionate about? … If you didn’t have to make money doing it, what are those things that you would absolutely love to do, and that you could see yourself doing potentially for the rest of your life?”