The Affluent Homeless: A Sleeping Pod, A Hired Desk And A Handful Of Clothes

Apr 23, 2019
Originally published on April 25, 2019 12:55 pm

More young people are leaning into the rental or sharing economy — owning less of everything and renting and sharing a whole lot more. Housing, cars, music, workspaces. In some places, such as Los Angeles, this rental life has gone to an extreme.

Steven T. Johnson, 27, works in social media advertising and lives in Hollywood. He spends most of his days using things he does not own.

He takes a ride-share service to get to the gym; he does not own a car. At the gym, he rents a locker. He uses the gym's laundry service because he does not own a washing machine.

Johnson doesn't even have an apartment, actually. He rents a bed in a large room with other people who rent beds, for nights, weeks or months at a time, through a service called PodShare. All the residents share a kitchen and bathrooms. Johnson also rents a desk at WeWork, a coworking space.

And he says the only clothes he owns are two versions of the same outfit.

Johnson says he owns so little that he has even been able to get rid of his backpack. "I gave that up two months ago," he says.

He says that for him, this lifestyle isn't cumbersome or confusing. "That's what's great," he says. "When you don't own things, you don't have to keep track of them. You just show up."

He's part of a newish group of young people. He is educated and owns his own business. He could be considered well off, but he is also, in a way, homeless. By choice.

There are two big reasons for this shift: the price of housing and student loan debt. A little more than a third of millennials currently own homes, a rate lower than Generation X and baby boomers when they were the same age.

But is there something else going on as well? Does Johnson represent a fundamental shift in American capitalism as we know it?

Skyler Wang, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley who studies the sharing economy, says even if young people own less and are less enamored with ownership than their parents may be, they still have a lot of stuff — it's just not tangible.

"I talked to a lot of minimalists," Wang says. "They're the type of people who love to couch-surf. They own like 30 things, but ... they hoard digitally. They have tons of photographs. They have thousands and thousands of Instagram posts."

They still live in an economy of stuff — it's just different stuff. It's experiences.

How do businesses deal with this? For starters, a lot more companies are getting into rentals. Even Ikea is starting to lease its furniture.

The outdoor chain REI announced recently it is vastly expanding its rental program for things like camping gear. Eric Artz, acting CEO of the company, says this requires a different kind of outreach.

"We're selling joy," he says. "We're selling inspiration when you get out on a trail or go for a bike ride. We're selling the adrenaline buzz at the end of a run, and we're just trying to enable that in any way we possibly can."

Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College who studies the rental and sharing economies, says not everyone is in it for the same reasons. Some are doing it just for enjoyment. Some are doing it to move toward transactions that are less corporate and more personal. Others are willing to spend more for convenience.

But a lot rent and share because they're broke and they need to save money.

"I think it's a mistake to characterize them ... with one kind of economic orientation or orientation to money," Schor says.

That makes it really hard to predict whether renting and sharing is our long-term future, or just a fad — even for Johnson, who is totally plugged in to a rental life.

"It's not something that you can do forever, because you do need to have a place that you can genuinely point to and say, this is my home," he says.

(Note: REI and WeWork are among NPR's financial sponsors.)

: 4/25/19

Toward the end of the audio version of this story, we mistakenly refer to Steven Johnson as Steven Jones.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

By now, you've probably heard about the so-called rental or sharing economy, where young people own a lot fewer things than their parents did. Instead, they rent and share a whole lot more - houses, cars, music, workspaces. In some places, this rental life has gone to an extreme.

NPR's Sam Sanders has one such story.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Steven T. Johnson works in social media advertising, and he spends most of his days using things he does not own.

STEVEN T JOHNSON: I took an Uber to Equinox to shower before we met and then went to PodShare and then came to WeWork.

SANDERS: Steven took a ride-share to get to the gym he uses. He does not own a car. At the gym, he rents a locker. He uses the gym's laundry service because he does not own a washing machine. He doesn't even have an apartment, actually.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

SANDERS: We were going to meet at PodShare, this co-living space where Steven rents a bed - just a bed - in a big, open room with about a dozen other people. But it was too loud. So we went to his co-working space, a place called WeWork, where Steven rents a desk. WeWork is also an NPR sponsor.

How do you keep track?

JOHNSON: That's what's great. When you don't own things, you don't have to keep track of them. You just show up.

SANDERS: Steven owns so little, he can carry most of his stuff in his hands.

JOHNSON: I actually gave up my backpack about - that was the smallest I got down to - and I gave that up two months ago.

SANDERS: Steven also only owns two outfits - well, two of the same outfit.

JOHNSON: Under Armour brand-less sport shoes, Lululemon pants, Lululemon socks, Lululemon shirt, Lululemon underwear.

SANDERS: Steven is part of a newish group of young people - kind of well-off but also, in a way, homeless.

Does Steven represent a fundamental shift in American capitalism as we know it?

SKYLER WANG: The fact is that we can't afford to sort of hoard anymore.

SANDERS: That's Skylar Wang. He's a Ph.D. student at UC, Berkeley. He studies the sociology of the sharing economy. And he thinks one of the biggest factors in this economic shift is younger people buying fewer houses and choosing to live in dense urban areas and rent smaller places.

Part of this is houses just being more expensive than they were for our parents. But when you're more OK with renting the place you live in, it's maybe a lot easier to accept the life where you rent and share a whole lot more.

Wang does point out even if young people own less, they still have a lot of stuff, stuff that isn't tangible.

WANG: I talked to a lot of minimalists. They are the type of people who love to couch-surf, right? They own, like, 30 things, but then the interesting thing is that they hoard digitally.

SANDERS: They hoard digitally.

WANG: They have tons of photographs. They have thousands and thousands of Instagram posts.

SANDERS: It's still an economy of stuff. It's just different stuff. It's experiences. So how do businesses deal with this? For starters, a lot more companies are getting into rentals. Even IKEA is starting to lease its furniture. The outdoor chain REI announced recently that it's vastly expanding its rental program for things like camping gear. Eric Artz is the acting CEO of the company. He says this requires a different kind of outreach - selling experience more than the actual item.

ERIC ARTZ: We're selling joy. You know, we're selling inspiration when you get out on a trail or go for a bike ride. You know, we're selling the adrenaline buzz at the end of a run. We're just trying to enable that in any way we possibly can.

SANDERS: We should point out REI is an NPR sponsor.

Juliet Schor is a sociologist at Boston College. She studies the rental and sharing economies. And she says not everyone's in it for the same reasons. Some are doing it just for joy. Some are doing it to move towards more personal and less corporate transactions. Others are willing to spend more for convenience. But a lot rent and share because they're broke and they need to save money.

JULIET SCHOR: So I think it's a mistake to characterize them with one kind of economic orientation or orientation to money.

SANDERS: Which makes it really hard to predict whether renting and sharing is our long-term future or just a fad, even for Steven Jones (ph) who is totally plugged in to a rental life.

JOHNSON: It's not something that you can do forever because you do need to have a place that you can genuinely point to and say this is my home.

SANDERS: I asked him how long he can live the way he's living now - a bed in a large, shared room. He's already done that off and on for more than a year, sometimes for months at a time.

Steven tells me he does not know, but he also says he didn't think he'd make it this far.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Near the end of the audio version of this report, we mistakenly refer to Steven Johnson as Steven Jones.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.