By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton
‘Is privacy a privilege or a right?’
I am speaking with Elvina Beck, CEO of PodShare, a co-living space company which she co-founded with her father. While Beck was born in Moscow in the final years of the USSR, her business is Californian through-and-through, based in the sun-drenched cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and full of twenty and thirty-somethings finding their way in the world. But the sunny, youthful aesthetic of the company hides many more complex realities of the necessities that it stems from.
The Co-Living Experience
PodShare provides its users each with a bed, or ‘pod’, including basic amenities. Part dormitory, part hostel, part commune, it is in part a gentrification of all these things into something slicker and more modern. Beck is keen to stress the importance of redesign to express the novelty of her purpose : “you don’t call it a bunkbed; you call it a pod. You don’t call it a dormitory; you call it co-living.” This, she believes, takes away some of the associated ‘shame’ of group-based living in one’s thirties which the former terms may evoke.
“People love community,” she stresses, evoking PodShare as something breaking away from the youthful associations of dorms and hostels into something more universally communal. However, the youthful is still present: it’s “still bringing you back to that nostalgia; the cradle or the dorm or the things you may have loved. It’s the same concept.” PodShare, in other words, aims to tap into a nostalgia for youth whilst stripping it of the taboo surrounding the failure to own property in a capitalist country by a certain age.
Going even further, Beck has talked in promotional videos about ‘ending loneliness.’ Here, she brings up the idea of collisions: “the rate in which you bump into somebody new, or just bump into somebody. It could be when you open the door for somebody, or share a coffee jug, it could be ‘hey, do you want the rest of my food?’ It could be any conversation. It could be hearing somebody talk French and just reminding you that you took French class in high school.” PodShare increases collisions, reducing the moments where we have privacy and time to ourselves.
“Is privacy a privilege or a right?” she asks. “Which is kind of a common question in PodShare because you strip privacy in our version of co-living. It’s literally all open floor plan, it’s one large open space, industrial looking, commercial in nature but residential in use. And that means that there are no walls, the only walls are the front door and the bathroom, the kitchen’s open, the communal spaces are open, it is all open.” In Beck’s view, this kind of communal space, and the collisions that generate from it, is what is missing from ‘silo’d’ modern life. “We ask ourselves why are we unhappy? You know, you’ve got this job, you’ve got stability, maybe you have a family, but you feel like you’re missing something.”
PodShare and Bridge Housing
Many of us may not share Beck’s utopian view of human interactions. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, characterised, through his concept of ‘the look,’ how the mere presence of an observer can transform one into an object, making them aware of their essential nature as an object for others and thus that their actions exist from the perspective of others. inducing shame as a result (he is of course famous for saying “hell is other people.”) But with living for young people getting more expensive across the United States, particularly in cities such as Los Angeles (where average monthly rent for an apartment is $2,563) and San Francisco (where average monthly rent for an apartment is $3,244) perhaps privacy is no longer a right, but a privilege, as it has been for so many years in the developing world. Because of this economic uncertainty, the open-minded philosophy behind PodShare hides a less utopian but far more practical secondary purpose.
Beck aims to provide ‘bridge housing’ to those that need it: “literally bridging you from where you were to where you are.” She describes the need for this fairly bluntly. “During Covid the bridge housing can really be used for when you had a place, you become homeless, and before you find your permanent housing it is your place from anywhere from six months to three years.”
Even before Covid, many people were using PodShare as a useful bridge while looking for a home. Whilst upon its founding in 2012, the service was mostly used by international travellers for short stays, the percentage of American users slowly increased along with the length of their stays, with the average length of stay rising to three weeks after 2015.
Beck emphasises the accessibility of PodShare compared to alternatives, with no background checks, flexible payment methods, and no proof of income required. However, “the most important thing is that you can pay by night, week or month. For Americans, this is really crucial because there are a lot of zoning laws that require you to stay for thirty-plus days, and the problem is that pre-Covid the average American bank account only has $400 of surplus in it. That doesn’t get you a home. With Covid it’s even less. So if you were to break down payments and say it’s $40 a night, it’s $245 a week, now you’re affording housing and not winding up on the street, trying bad drugs for the first time because it’s cold outside.”
PodShare also works with non-profits. For example, the non-profit Safe Place for Youth, along with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family services (DCFS), worked with her in order to find temporary housing for young people who had aged out of the US foster care system. “There comes a point when you age out of that foster system and you hope to be on your feet,” but this isn’t always possible. PodShare provides bridge housing for these young people. They have also worked with hospitals during Covid to house homeless people otherwise taking up ER beds.
A Symptom of the Times
While some may be closer to Sartre than Beck on their view of social interactions, the reality is that accessible bridge housing such as that which PodShare provides has become economically necessary for many disaffected Americans. By providing flexible and readily available housing which, because of how little space it takes up per person, comes more cheaply than the average LA or San Franciscan home, PodShare is another option for those who don’t have many.