Campfire: A City Building Podcast

#27 Haven: Wellness Coliving in Venice Beach with Robert O'Neill

Episode Notes

This week on Campfire, Jackson is joined by Robert O’Neill, the founder of Haven Coliving. In a city and country where people are reliant on cars and often socially isolated, Robert sought to create a wellness-conscious place where people could live together in Venice Beach, California. Through its application process, Haven gets to know its prospective residents and curates a community of passionate people excited about being at the forefront of the housing revolution. Tune in to this episode to hear what life at Haven is like, how they got off the ground, and how Haven is consciously expanding. 

 

Topics Covered: 

Campfire is brought to you by Cabin - a network of coliving neighborhoods for nature-loving creators and remote workers. You can learn more at the following links:

Website (cabin.city)

Twitter

Discord

Read more urbanist content at The Future of Living Newsletter

 

Episode Link: 

Haven’s Website 

 

Episode Credit:

Hosted by @JacksonSteger

Sound Engineering by @Prodcolin

Videos and Clips by @McdonnellCallum 

Produced + Distributed by @PhilippeIze

Episode Transcription

[00:00:00] Jackson Steger: Hi everyone. This is Jackson Steger, and you're listening to Season 2 of Campfire. Let's get it.

[00:00:10] As always, Campfire seeks to understand how to build new cities. Each week we are joined by experts and practitioners from different startup cities, network states, and coliving organizations who will share the stories and lessons that they have learned from experimenting with radical new models of living.

[00:00:26] Today's guest is Robert O'Neill, Co-founder and CEO of Haven Coliving. Haven is a coliving community in Venice Beach that I lived in at the start of 2022. I loved my experience and I think that Robert has done a great job creating a welcoming, dense space for creatives in Los Angeles. We chat about community building and coliving property development and design.

[00:00:51] A reminder, Cabin’s neighborhoods are also now open for coliving. If you're interested in long-term coliving at beautiful locations with nature out the front door, high speed internet, and actual campfires, you can join the waitlist today by visiting www.cabin.city. We're also excited to announce two new coliving experiences this spring, one in Columbia and one in Portugal.

[00:01:14] A reminder, if you introduce us to a city builder and we book them on the podcast, we'll reward you with some Cabin. Now, onto the episode. 

[00:01:22] Robert O'Neill, welcome to Campfire. 

[00:01:24] Robert O'Neill: Thanks for having me, Jackson. Appreciate it. 

[00:01:26] Jackson Steger: I started off this calendar year by living at Haven at the Brooks property in Venice, California. It’s an amazing month. I did it with two of my best friends. And I've never seen anything like it before or since. So just as a first question, I would love for you to tell the audience what is Haven and what motivated you to start it? 

[00:01:47] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. So, Haven is a coliving house in Venice Beach. So, right now we have six buildings across two communities. And basically our idea behind Haven is to create a space that really promotes community, but also solves some problems within the housing market in L.A., which are lack of flexibility with the time that you're able to stay at places, the affordability, just the difficulty of somebody coming into L.A. not knowing anybody, not knowing where they want to live, not knowing if Venice or West Hollywood or Silver Lake is the right place for them, and how are you going to make a one year decision on that based on pictures online. 

[00:02:27] So, we wanted to make it easy, and we wanted to create a great community. We’ve developed these properties in Venice that we thought would be great for it. They were existing buildings that we took over. We outfitted them into what is Haven, which is shared bedrooms. You have a private enclosed space within a shared bedroom. So, everybody has Japanese-style sleeping pods, and on average it's four to six people per bedroom, but you do get a private enclosed space.

[00:02:52] So we were able to solve for affordability because of the density, we're able to solve for community because you're able to, you just have so many interactions every day, that you meet people. When you're outside, when you're in the kitchen, when you're in the living room, there's just so many interactions that you would have. And we're able to solve for flexibility because you can come in month to month or you can stay... And those are the three challenges that we found within really just the apartment rental market and where we hope we have made a little bit of it then.

[00:03:21] Jackson Steger: Yeah, I definitely felt advantaged by that flexibility. It was great for me as a newcomer to L.A., knowing that I had this month to feel out the vibe, see what I thought, and then if I wanted to extend, that was certainly an option. And then also, if not, then I still knew that there was this community I could go back to and maintain friendships with, which was great. 

[00:03:45] A huge part of the marketing online and also the experience actually being there is that it's this wellness-driven or wellness-oriented community. And so, could you just speak a little bit as to why that is a huge part of Haven? And then like, how does that manifest in the actual design of the layout? 

[00:04:04] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. So, you know, we thought a lot about how to create a community. If you want to bring a group of people together that don't know each other and you're asking to live together, how do you create a common focus of this is the type of person that we're looking for and would be attracted to it but also somebody that would make the community better overall. We decided, we talked to a lot of people. There was another coliving house prior to ours that was focused on artists, and it worked so well because people started bands. People were comedians, and they had similar goals. And coming from my background, which was a tech background, that I was in front of a computer all day, I wasn't living healthy, I was alone, I wanted health and wellness in my life, and we thought, hey, listen, this is something that I think a lot of people want as well. They want community. They want to be around people who are in terms of what they want to gear their life towards. It doesn't matter what background you're in. We have people who are really big into the health and wellness industry. So, they're yogis, they’re breath work instructors, they're doing different things within industry. And there's other people who just, they're not into it, but that's the type of lifestyle they want to achieve to, or actually are.

[00:05:15] Some people come there for a bunch of different reasons, but everybody knows the common goal of what you come to Haven for is that this is a like-minded wellness community and that can inspire you in any way that you want, but we make that even more so from when you started. We developed a much more rigorous onboarding session, so that everybody is completely aware of what the standards are for the community, what's expected out of our new members, and what your expectations should be from us. And we really think we've created a pretty cohesive environment for everybody. 

[00:05:50] Jackson Steger: Yeah. Let's pull that thread a little bit. The curation of the community, I thought, complemented the design space, right? So, there was a yoga studio, there's a gym, there's like outdoor space, and also your serendipity because people have to go through the kitchen to pass into their bedrooms, and so they're bound to bump into someone and maybe have an interaction there. But what's this onboarding you're referring to or is there like curation of who's in the community, and then like are there any rules or expectations you're establishing in that onboarding session?

[00:06:23] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. Everybody who joins Haven does either a virtual or a live tour with our community manager, and he reinforces the values on every tour that he does and saying, this is the community we have, these are the expectations for our new members. And some people don't want to do that, and they do an initial call, and they're like, no, thank you. It's the weed-out process from the initial interview. And when they talk to us at first, at this point, we're trying to not make people not want to do it, but just saying, listen, like being a community is hard. Being around this many people, it's challenging for a lot of people, and you're going to push yourself more than you may be comfortable with, and you have to make sure you're ready for that because some people aren't. And we don't want people to come in and say, oh, this is just a lot and I'm overwhelmed, and all this stuff. So, we try to make it pretty clear up upfront. And then, so that's the first thing, and it helps, again, gravitate the message towards what we're looking for in a community. 

[00:07:17] And then the second part is the application process, which is not a formal like apartment style application where it's, you know, your work history and your residence history and your previous owners. It's more of a college essay style. It's a six-page college essay style application. It's what do you want, what are your goals? What do you want to contribute to the community? Why are you interested in Haven? What type of experience are you hoping to get out of this? What can you contribute back to Haven? 

[00:07:42] And I think that that helps separate people because you actually have to think about it. It's not I have to list five addresses. It's in people who take the time to do it and are thoughtful, and we move them past the process. So, I think it's pretty rigorous, and we try to find the best people we can, and we think we've created a pretty good community. I think there's10 marriages out of the house already in three years, businesses have been created, people have met and found apartments together because they've found people they love to be around. And we encourage all of that. We want to support people as they kind of transition into Haven and try this new experience and transition out to wherever they want to go after that.

[00:08:22] Jackson Steger: You mentioned that the community manager giving these tours does a lot of that level setting, and on this podcast, we've brought in a number of different like coliving communities or similar-ish kinds of projects. And I'm just curious to get your take on what makes a good community manager. What's the skillset that, say someone like you starting a project like this in Philadelphia or D.C. or just some other U.S. city, say they're like starting to hire their first community manager, what would you recommend that they look for?

[00:08:53] Robert O'Neill: At least with us it can be very stressful dealing with a bunch of personalities. And it's not like a regular apartment where, you know, even private room coliving, it's similar, like you’re asking people to share space. So, you're more involved with people's lives than you would if I just said, I got a studio apartment, here are the keys, buy your furniture, goodbye. And so, you have to be willing to set your own boundaries. You have to be willing to obviously be respectful to everybody at all times. But also, again, it's somebody who, it's the office space. Like we have 170 members right now. You have 170 bosses because you have everybody asking you things as you're working through your day. So. you've got to be able to juggle a lot during the day and prioritize what's important and what's not. Finding a good community manager is very difficult. I think our community manager, Cassidy and James and Regina and our whole team, is fantastic, and they are able to delineate their personal life from work. And it is difficult. It’s a challenge for people.

[00:09:57] Jackson Steger: Yeah, I'm sure. Just given the density of how many people are there., and also, my impression is that the Haven Group, it's a lot, there's some younger folks who are like fresh out of high school or fresh out of college, and maybe this is their first time living with a bunch of roommates, there's bound to eventually be conflict, maybe small, maybe large. What are like principles of conflict resolution that you have learned or that your community managers have learned?

[00:10:26] Robert O'Neill: You know, I think what we try not to do is be their parent, and especially we do have a lot of younger people who have never lived on their own before and are moving from this world that in school and at home somebody has always been there to solve their problems for them. What we try to impress upon people is that we're there to help, but you need to make that first step. So, if you're feeling challenged by somebody, if you're feeling that something isn't right, you know, before coming to us, we encourage people to be able to try and solve the issue on their own. And if it can't be solved, we're happy to take that next step. But we don't want to be the frontline of every issue. Obviously, if there's a major issue, we want to be aware of it, but empowering people to communicate their boundaries, communicate what they feel comfortable with in the space is super important, and it's a life lesson for a lot of people. Going through that challenge and saying, okay, I feel uncomfortable with this person's noise level of watching tv, right? I feel uncomfortable with this. And talking to somebody and say, hey, do you mind, quiet hours start at 10:00 P.M., do you mind turning it down? It’s important. And you're living with people, and you want to be friends, and you don't want to be the home monitor, but if you're feeling uncomfortable about it, like you should feel empowered to speak up. And we try to get people to feel empowered that, hey, this is your space, you live here. And if people are doing something that's uncomfortable for you, they're watching the TV or playing the radio or something that's too loud, or just something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you live here. So, we want you to be able to feel comfortable to say, let's make this better.

[00:11:55] We do that, and then we do weekly meetings. So, anybody who has an issue, we encourage them to bring it up so we can solve it as a community instead of a top down where, oh, some people think quiet hours should start at 11. Okay, we change the standard. Now, it's 11, which doesn't make – we can do, but it doesn't solve the problem, and it doesn't merit everybody being on the same page.  So, our house meetings are super important. And we made them mandatory. Since you'd lived there before, they were optional, and we weren't getting a lot of attendance. Now, we're saying, listen, let everybody be involved in making this space better, and it's a constant improvement process. 

[00:12:30] Jackson Steger: Yeah, I like that. And I imagine that not every house meeting is some sort of like rule review. I imagine that at the end people are glad to see everyone and go off and get dinner or something. So, that's awesome. 

[00:12:39] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:12:41] Jackson Steger: That's a great idea. Shifting gears a little bit, I want to just talk about the real estate side of it. I think it's such a unique property, the Brooks location, and Penmar as well, and I just kind of want to learn a little bit about how you identified that property, developed it to the degree that you did. So, back when you first started on this process, what were just basic criteria you were looking for? And then also maybe if you were doing this again, like is there any other criteria you would add to that list? What makes a good coliving property, at least here in L.A.? 

[00:13:13] Robert O'Neill: What we look for is walkability. Some place that a large amount of people don't need cars to live there. They can live and work in the same area. Our Brooks location is near Rose Avenue and Abbott Kinney. Our Penmar location is near the Venice Pier and the canals, and there's amenities near the building that makes it attractive, because we're trying to create someplace, you don't need a car to live there. You can take Uber, you can walk, you can get to where you want to, you can go to the beach, you can do fun stuff just right around you. So, that's super important. 

[00:13:43] In terms of the actual building, I think our first two properties, two communities, are single-family homes, and they're called small subdivisions, which are basically homes for sale. What we're moving to and what we've been trying to identify is more multi-family properties that have more kitchen space for people. And the price point between single-family homes and multi-family is multi-family buildings are about half the price on a per square foot basis than single-family homes. And our goal is to provide cost-effective housing. And as the LA. housing market has skyrocketed, we've been looking a lot more towards multi-family buildings. 

[00:14:22] Jackson Steger: Sure. And just to paint a picture for the listener. So, the Brooks property, where I live, there's this central courtyard, and then on either side of the courtyard are four pairs of two houses. And the front house has like a kitchen downstairs and a few bedrooms upstairs, and then the back house upstairs are their bedrooms, and then each back house has a different amenity. So, one has a yoga studio, one has a gym, one has a movie theater, and one has a coworking space. And so, I thought that was just such a perfect situation. How much renovation had to happen for that, if any? Was this just like a needle in the haystack property, or how much did you develop it yourselves?

[00:15:04] Robert O'Neill: Yeah, obviously when you're creating that density, you have to upgrade some of the systems in a building. So, it wasn't a cheap thing to change over, and we put a big investment into that property to get it to where we felt like it would work. But I think any building that we go into, it's not if we take something existing, it's never going to be perfect. When I first looked at Brooks, I was like, I don't know how this is going to work. If you would've seen it before we got in there, everything was closed off together, there were walls off, they just looked like kind of small townhomes. There were no walls anywhere in the building, like the second floor, the third floor, no walls. We had to build everything to make it work, and I think it definitely turned out pretty well. 

[00:15:42] Jackson Steger: Yeah. I'm curious you keep using this language “we” and I want to talk about the financing. We don't have to do hard numbers, of course, but I'm just curious, who's the team behind this project? How did you attract folks to the project? I see on your website you have a page for real estate investors. Was there a certain group of investor you tried to attract? It seems to me that it was at the time, probably such a novel idea. Was it difficult to pitch?

[00:16:07] Robert O'Neill: Yeah, I mean we raised funds for our first few rounds to raise for our Brooks property. It was friends and family. And then after we proved, you know, because it was a different concept for a lot of people. And after we basically proved that there was demand for this and we could build a property like that, we raised an outside venture around right before COVID started. So, we were thankful that we were able to close that. Before, I think a lot of coliving companies had difficulty and during COVID. And during COVID, before you got there, we didn't know anything of what was going on, and obviously we have such dense, we just told everybody, listen, if you feel uncomfortable, like we're just going to let you out of any agreement we have, and you can just go home. Obviously, you may have lost your job, you can't get anywhere. So, we basically went from full capacity to 40% capacity over in a course of a month.

[00:16:55] And then we couldn't move people in for six months because there were no testing, there were no vaccines, there was no way to safely move people back in. It was definitely a difficult time. But yeah, so we raised a venture around. What we realized since then is that a venture money into real estate is not the most effective use of funds. So now we're talking to real estate investors that want to own the property with us as a partner.

[00:17:19] Jackson Steger: Yeah. This is exactly the question I was about to ask. We've seen this at Cabin. And so, does the scale of venture really match what a real estate project is able to return? And yeah, with real estate investors, what are the expectations that you're trying to set regarding returns for future properties? 

[00:17:35] Robert O'Neill: We have two concepts for any future development. One is more of a multi-family building with a small coliving component, because one thing for real estate investors is they like things that look like everything else, even though…So, if you try to talk to people about dense coliving or shared bedrooms, there's no product type for it in the debt markets, there's nothing they can compare it to on the equity markets. Those are the challenges that we have, but we can return greater income, any multi-family deal, and we can be in better locations than any ground up opportunity there would be because based on the density we have. So, we're able to return higher amounts to investors. but especially a lot of the real estate investor base is on the older side and it's hard to remember that this is really appealing. It was probably even appealing for them when they were younger. But when they're older, it's a hard concept to wrap up your mind around. 

[00:18:34] Jackson Steger: I think my dream situation is, are you familiar with Radish at all in San Francisco? Sorry, I guess it's technically in Oakland, but Phil Levin, who is full-time at Cabin and has also been on this podcast, operates a community out of Oakland that no one has private enclosed spaces in the larger bedroom. Everyone has their own bedroom, but they do have this five-building compound that's a mix of really interesting, like there will be one building that's four one-bedroom apartments, one that's a five-bedroom house, one that's a two-bed and a three-bed apartment, and there's a big communal building with an industrial kitchen and like a daycare on top, and…Anyway, I love the idea of that in Venice, because I love Venice and I love the beach, and that’s like a personal vision for myself down the road. But for something like that, you do need to start having more cops. And so, have you been able to identify a community of other people working on this sort of more novel development, or where have you gone to just learn on this kind of subject matter?

[00:19:36] Robert O'Neill: There are some groups, like coliving groups, (00:19:37) One. I don't know if you're familiar with them. They have a kind of international coliving group, a monthly call, and there's people from Europe and Asia and the U.S. and all kind of discuss what's going on in their markets, which is always kind of interesting to hear. For us, specifically, there's not any real community in L.A., but I think pre-COVID we’ve tried to bring together a few coliving companies and then create a consortium and make sure that everybody had high standards on the community, just so it would be well looked upon. After COVID, some of them aren't here anymore. I think it's a rebuilding phase in the coliving world at least in L.A. for new companies here. 

[00:20:18] Jackson Steger: Awesome. Cool. I have one last question to take us out. There's this term that I'm trying to make a thing. We'll see if it actually pans out, but the term is ‘vibe scaling’. There's this basic idea that, you have a tech background, you understand this. Someone like a WeWork comes in and Adam Neumann has this language that's super community oriented and very ambitious, but then ultimately the WeWork at scale will never have the same density of community and passion that the very first WeWork has. And I've now worked at a several different early-stage tech outfits that have engaged in vibe scaling to one degree or another, and I'm just personally wary of venture-backed vibe scaling. 

[00:20:00] But at Cabin, one thing that we are trying to think about as we contend with potentially being a vibe scaling organization is cross-pollination. So, folks who have had a good experience in one of our iterations of the thing, which for us is also coliving, and then having them also be at the second iteration, and the third iteration, and just having a core group of people that are able to bring the successful pillars of your N of 1 to your N of 5 and 10 and a hundred. 

[00:21:32] Brooks and Penmar to me felt like two different worlds in terms of like they're setups are pretty different, there's just different groups of people, and you got across like a street, a busier street, to get there. So, how do you think about maintaining a consistent Haven-ness between both Brooks and Penmar? And then how are you thinking about scaling the vibe for other properties that you might build in the future?

[00:21:59] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. And I think even at Brooks, house to house the vibe is different, you know. It's interesting, it's hard to scale. Sometimes you have a big personality that moves in but it kind of dominates the space, and you can see the energy shift, interesting to watch, and then people gravitate towards the energy that they, some people, I think you’re house 4, it was more of the louder house. And then you have something like our house 2, which is everything is pristine, and everything is quiet, and everybody goes to bed early and wakes up early. And you will get a lot of requests from people saying, hey, I feel more attuned to the house 4 people. Can I move? Or I feel house 2 is my vibe. And it's cool because everybody gets along, but the way they live their life, they kind of gravitate towards that. 

[00:22:49] But in terms of scaling it, I agree with you. We've thought a lot about seeding the communities with existing members just to set expectations. We haven't gotten there yet, but I think that's an important way to make sure that when you're starting a new community, somebody just doesn't come in and dominate and change the tone of everything. And I think really focusing on your first 5 or 10 members and really being, like working with them, and even if they're existing Haven members, they understand the part that they're going to play. Or if they're new people, keep on drilling into them of this is the tone that we're setting for new people because it's really like the tone that you start from the beginning is it resonates for months afterwards. I think that's the most important part for us. And then being consistent across the community events, and our community events reinforce our values every time we have them. We try to re-instill that every time. 

[00:23:40] Jackson Steger: Yeah. Does it make sense for Haven to expand throughout Los Angeles first, or do you think maybe the better approach is have a few flagship locations across major U.S. cities, or even international cities?

[00:23:55] Robert O'Neill: I think there's enough demand within Los Angeles, and I think there is, for instance, we've had people who moved to Venice and say, hey, I work in the entertainment industry and everything's more East and I love it, but I can't live here. And I think there's probably six areas within L.A. that we're targeting of like areas we think a Haven would work. And we think we can do two or three more with just within Venice, and we have the demand for that. There's other areas in L.A., like West Hollywood adjacent Silver Lake, Echo Park, Koreatown, Beverly Grove, all these areas that we think can support our Haven. And L.A. .is so big, it's just like moving to a different city anyway. And the difference between Silver Lake and Venice is worlds apart. I mean, you cross more people going from Venice to Silver Lake than you do probably going to the south of South Dakota to the north of North Dakota because just there’s a lot of people and a lot of different personalities. We're focusing just on L.A. for now, and I think our idea is we want to do one test market within the next two years.

[00:24:58] Jackson Steger: Awesome. Cool. Robert, anything to plug? If someone is listening to this episode and they're like, wow, Haven sounds awesome, I want to check it out, where should we send them? 

[00:25:06] Robert O'Neill: Yeah. Definitely you can check us out online either at our website at www.havencoliving.com or you can see us on Instagram @colivingathaven. Those are the two main ways to get in contact with us, and you can always set up a tour and talk to our community managers and see what the community is about. 

[00:25:22] Jackson Steger: Awesome. Thanks so much. Appreciate you coming on the show. 

[00:25:24] Robert O'Neill: Yeah, thank you. 

[00:25:25] Jackson Steger: And I hope to see you at another Haven property soon.