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Why Buy Anything You Could Borrow (Especially If You’re Renting)?

The sharing economy has come to apartment buildings — and landlords have discovered a new way to attract tenants.

June 30, 2023

Brooke Renteria moved to a studio in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, from California two years ago. All she had to unpack were her suitcases. The unit of less than 400 square feet in Caesura, an apartment building cater-corner from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, came with a Murphy bed, a built-in table/desk and a 49-inch smart TV. Ms. Renteria, who is 24 and works in tech, also had access to the building’s Common Goods room, a basement closet stocked with household items that residents could check out for free. Among the dozens of objects: a sewing machine, a Ninja professional blender and a white porcelain dinner service for 12. “I think I used a chair or two from there” when friends were visiting, she said recently as she passed through Caesura’s lobby, where candy jars held pet treats and a monitor flashed details about yoga classes. Caesura is not cheap. When the 12-story building with 123 units opened in 2018, its 34 furnished micro studios started at $2,588 a month for 314 square feet. Ms. Renteria pays $2,900 for hers. But unlike the swimming pools and fancy gyms in many of Brooklyn’s newly sprouted towers, Caesura’s Common Goods are an amenity geared toward thrift rather than luxury, a way to declutter tight quarters and encourage tenants to participate in the philosophically and ecologically benevolent culture of sharing.

Common Goods are meant to “support affordability, reduce consumption and enhance residents’ sense of being part of a larger community,” said Joshua Haggarty, the associate developer of asset management at Jonathan Rose Companies, Caesura’s developer. The program was created in the same spirit of sociability as the building’s fitness center, rooftop garden and bike storage room, he said.

It remains unique among the Rose Companies’ 80 properties in 11 states. Mr. Haggarty said that while older buildings owned or acquired by the developer do not have the space for the program, Common Goods will be part of two soon-to-be-completed rental buildings: Sendero Verde in East Harlem and NC5 in Philadelphia. (At present, neither website promotes the amenity.)

In his 2021 book “The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism,” Kyle Chayka reported that “the average American household possesses over 300,000 items.” From the dawn of the modern sharing economy, entrepreneurs have wrestled with marketplaces for the short-term use of the kinds of purchases that tend to idle in households: things like power drills, punch bowls, tents and tripods.

What has been learned through the birth and death of numerous start-ups is that convenience and trust are crucial to sharing. Apartment buildings are logical centers for exchange because residents don’t have to go far to borrow an object, and interactions are with the building management or neighbors.

Landlords increasingly see shared goods as a perk for attracting and keeping tenants. And they are experimenting with a variety of distribution methods.

Like Caesura, the new Citizen W10 apartment building, in downtown Denver, buys and maintains goods that tenants can borrow. But its offerings are athletic — bikes, tents, scooters, longboards. Lease holders may borrow up to two items for free: bikes and trolley carts for up to 24 hours, and everything else for up to five days.

Angela Harris, of Trio Design in Denver, which worked on the building’s interiors, said the gear room was conceived with a “double bonus approach”: Residents are not only spared investment in sporting equipment, but can “go out and enjoy it together.”

For her client’s benefit, the room is visible from the lobby, so prospective residents can peek in and be impressed.

Other buildings are making use of technology-driven platforms that offer a broad menu of household and entertainment goods and automate the process of borrowing them.

Brevvie, founded in Irvine, Calif., in 2017, specializes in product-distribution units that are similar to vending machines. They are stocked with household and recreational goods and placed in apartment buildings, dorms and retail stores. The company, whose name is a contraction of the phrase “briefly rent everything,” selects the objects based on their durability, desirability and location. (Surfboards in California; backpacks in Washington State.)

Users browse the items on a website, make a selection, pay an hourly or daily rate and activate a mechanism to open the door of the locker and retrieve the object. The system reminds the user when it is time to return the object and notifies Brevvie and the landlord if anything goes missing. Users are charged for damage or loss, just as they would be if they were renting a car.

Kristine Everly, Brevvie’s co-founder, has a background in real estate marketing. Seeing the footprint of new apartments “getting smaller and smaller,” she said, she resolved to combine the ecological good of reduced consumption with the practical benefits of fewer belongings to store.

“A ladder, a dolly, a vacuum cleaner, a carpet steamer: No one wants to spend money on that stuff,” she said. “They want to buy a new iPhone.”

Ms. Everly, 43, said she combats any stigma associated with shared goods by filling the lockers with high-quality merchandise that apartment residents may be reluctant to buy but are delighted to use. Her vacuum cleaners are Dysons that sell for $500 but rent for an average of about $8 a day. (They also can be rented by the hour.) Her coolers from Yeti start at $200 to buy, but can be borrowed for $12 to $14 a day. Even so, there are haters, especially among people her parents’ age, Ms. Everly said. To those who say it’s gross to rent something someone else has worn or held, she replies, Well, you just ate in a restaurant, and you used a fork that someone else had in their mouth.’” Brevvie sells the stocked units to landlords for $13,000 to $16,000 each and provides round-the-clock customer service and oversight for a monthly fee of $199 a locker, paid out of the rental revenues the building collects. (Landlords keep the rest.) To date, 32 lockers have been installed, including 16 at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash. This number will grow to 38 in July. After stuttering in the pandemic, when no one wanted to share anything touched by human hands, the company is breaking even, Ms Everly said. A side operation selling firewood and propane through the lockers is helping to keep it afloat.

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