From the street, PodShare Venice looks mysterious. The top of a black A-framed building peeks out from behind a privacy-screened chain-link fence on the corner where busy South Venice Boulevard meets a side street of xeriscaped beach cottages. But inside, the yard is typical, not unlike the one outside my own apartment building, 12 miles east in Hollywood – only the grass here is a little cleaner, the landscaping is a little nicer, there’s a basketball court on the grounds, and we’re five blocks from the beach.
A tall, middle-aged man, shirtless in yoga pants and a purple scarf, lounges on a wooden futon in the grass, feet together and knees out, in Baddha Konasana position, tapping on his iPhone. A 20-something blond guy wearing American flag shorts and a Vans T-shirt reads a book in a nearby hammock. It’s a sunny, 65F day in Los Angeles, and my first time staying at a PodShare. For $60 a day, each of us gets access to two community kitchens and two co-ed bathrooms inside a converted church building, plus one of the 38 wooden bunk bed “pods”. But this isn’t a youth hostel. Many of the “podestrians” are fully grown adults with full-time jobs – who choose to live semi-permanently in a 50-sq-ft – pod. There are six similar PodShare locations across Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.
Each pod contains a bed, linens, an electrical outlet, a small Netflix-loaded HDTV, built-in shelving, one clothing hook and a dry-erase board. Atop the hospital-cornered beds are welcome kits consisting of one rolled-up hand towel, two energy drinks donated by little-known brands, and a pamphlet listing the PodShare rules:
Share (Don’t take.)
STFU (Quiet hours: 10pm – 10am.)
No Privacy (Do not build a tent, fort or clothesline – we’re an open community space on purpose.)
Friends (Make new ones – visitors may wait in the lobby for 20 minutes. Anyone staying longer should purchase a day pass for $15.)
One guy lies on his lower bunk, reading. Another, freshly showered, walks past, quiet and shirtless. As dinnertime nears, chatter in the kitchen grows as new podestrians show up; a mixture of English, French and German floats through the air. While some are just passing through for a few days, others stay here long term. Some residents have been so committed to the lifestyle that they’ve branded themselves with tattoos of the company logo. One 27-year-old who did not want to give his name has lived here for eight months, after moving to the Venice neighborhood of LA from Oklahoma to pursue a job offer. (He tried a few Airbnbs first, then settled on this PodShare instead.)
“I didn’t like living in small apartments, and the decent newer apartment buildings that don’t have asbestos and aren’t run-down go for triple the national average,” he says. “[PodShare is] five blocks from the beach, there’s a concert on site every two weeks by very talented acts, [it] has two full-size kitchens, and so on – lots of positives.” He also likes not being tied down by a lease and says that PodShare has been good for his personal growth – he used to order a lot of takeout, but a roommate here got him into cooking. When he’s not working, he plays basketball and watches movies with his fellow podestrians, and he’s met an assortment of folks from around the world. “Half the people that come through here are foreign, and it’s pretty cool getting to know them and their cultures – you learn a lot.”
One such person is the resident assistant Denise Pejic, a 23-year-old Austrian who has lived at PodShare Venice for a year and a half, after answering an online ad for a live-work exchange. Today, she clocks off at 4pm and heads from the front-desk reception area back to her semiprivate pod in an adjacent apartment, which she shares with five other resident assistants. She is one semester short of a degree in history and geography, but she has already fallen in love with the idea of traveling before she gets locked into a serious career.
“It’s like a dream life, living by the beach,” she says. “If you want to be by yourself, you can do it, everyone respects that, but if you’re bored you just ask people if [they] want to go sightseeing … you always have someone to do things with.” She even met her partner at PodShare – a woman from Mexico who was visiting cousins in Los Angeles. Pejic was standing on the threshold between the open front doors and the yard, enjoying the cool ocean breeze, when a co-worker introduced them. “I’ve never dated girls before, but her humor and kindness got me right away,” Pejic says. “You get to know so many people while staying at PodShare, but there are some that you connect with right away.”
Although there are a few double beds available at a higher rate, “pod sex” is not allowed, so intimacy takes a little planning. “We can go to a semiprivate double room in Westwood,” Pejic says, referring to the 85-bed PodShare known as the DormShare location near UCLA, which has bunk rooms, each with a lockable door.
Pejic isn’t the only one who’s formed a pod love connection – PodShare’s latest newsletter congratulates Dina and LaDavius, newlyweds who met on the couch at DormShare and recently returned on their wedding day to pose for photos “to commemorate where it all began”.
Tonight, five people gather in the front lobby of the Venice location, Pejic among them, deciding what to do for dinner. “That’s it, I’m ordering pizza,” Pejic declares. “I’m making chocolate chip cookies,” adds a short-haired brunette woman, as she moves toward the kitchen. Little cheers of glee erupt from the group as the cookie maker grabs a roll of premade dough from the refrigerator and pulls a baking sheet from a low cupboard.
Elvina Beck, the 34-year-old CEO and founder of PodShare, wanders through as the pizzas arrive, smiling as she hears of the consensus decision. A few people emerge from their bunks and stand around chatting while eating their slices. Beck is just back from a long bus ride from San Francisco, where she’s opened her seventh PodShare – this one with 17 beds – and now she says she has her eyes on nearby Santa Monica.
“There’s one person on the [community] board who can make or break the decision,” she says, openly discussing business with her chief financial officer in front of anyone who cares to listen. “They say they don’t want a hostel in their neighborhood, but I tell them we are different from hostels in two ways – we take local residents, and anyone can stay beyond 14 days, which is the limit for most hostels. I also brought up the Dogtown guys.” She’s referencing the pro skaters and surfers who hail from the Santa Monica area and have immortalized it with their skateboard brand, movies and overall panache. She speaks with fervor, slapping the back of one hand into her other palm for emphasis. “I asked, ‘Do you think those kids from Dogtown could afford to live in Santa Monica now, with one-bedrooms starting at $2,200? If your answer is no, you have to support us.’”
That type of moxie is typical of Beck, who built the PodShare business by hand – literally constructing many of the bunks herself. The Soviet Union–born daughter of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, Beck came to the United States with her parents in 1990, at the age of five. She was raised in Brooklyn until the family relocated to New Jersey when she was in high school. She moved to California to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, where she studied political science. After that, she worked in TV and film production for a while, but when the economy tanked in 2008, work started drying up and she began floating around, living out of hotels between gigs. By 2009 she had landed in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she rented out her second bedroom on a then new website called Airbnb. The landlord noticed her entrepreneurial spirit and offered her a lease on his building near Hollywood and Vine.
“He says to me, ‘I have this building … got a bunch of vacancies in it. What if you leased them from me and used this new website you speak of – you just put it up on there?’” Beck recalls. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, sure. That sounds good.’ I didn’t have a job, so this sounded like something.”
She leased the building, refurbished it a bit, and turned a profit. But she didn’t like the purely transactional feel of the arrangement, or the messes left behind by inconsiderate guests who treated the space like a hotel. Then the landlord offered her a ground-floor space, loft-like with a storefront and 12ft ceilings. Beck built bunk beds in the main room. “I wanted them to face each other, so people [would] get to really know each other,” she says. Inspired by MTV’s The Real World, she envisioned a diverse community where the layout would encourage people to interact.
“I called my dad, and I was like, ‘If I fly you from New Jersey, can you help me build these custom bunk beds?’” she says. Her father, who had built and invested in properties in Coney Island, told her: “People want a lot of space, and they want it all to themselves. They don’t want to share … you got it ass-backward.’”
She told him his ideas were outdated and explained the burgeoning sharing economy. He ultimately came out for three months. Together, they put up drywall, painted, made many trips to Home Depot, and even collected discarded wooden pallets from the streets of Los Angeles – all to build what is now the Hollywood PodShare.
At the end of her first year in business, Beck calculated that they had maintained 93% occupancy. Her father encouraged her to open a second location. She crowdfunded almost $30,000 on Indiegogo, then found a 2,000-sq-ft building in the up-and-coming Downtown Arts District (bordering Skid Row), where she added a new location with 16 rentable pods and two pods for resident assistants, which allowed the space to sleep a total of 22 people. PodShare was featured in the online outlet Tech Punch, which brought investors knocking, but Beck is proud to have grown without taking their money.
“I really want to be my own boss; that’s why I’m doing this,” she says. “No man can tell me what to do.”
The $50 per night rate worked for some, but artists being pushed out of the area by high rents asked Beck if she had any cheaper, long-term solutions, which is when she came up with the flat rate to stay at any PodShare across the city. “I’ll do a thousand dollars a month, no security deposit, no furnishing costs, or any utilities, no membership fees,” she says.
Next came the 10-bed Los Feliz location, built in a former cannabis dispensary; then the Venice one in 2017; then the office building that became DormShare in Westwood a year later; and most recently, the location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
Beck says that a lot of people want to hear horror stories about co-housing, but there just aren’t that many. The group dynamic, many say, is self-policing and solves a lot of problems. “We had a guy – a resident – accidentally climb into a woman’s bunk one night,” she says. “She screamed, everyone gathered around her and confronted him. He had just come in from a night of drinking and swore it was an honest mistake. He was evicted to another pod location, because though I believed he had no ill intention, people told him they did not feel safe with him staying there. He was fine after that.”
This being Los Angeles, television producers have pitched her the idea of a PodShare reality TV show, but the action seems to trend more toward communal meals and board games than Real World–like drama. She jokes about one day having a “pod baby” that everyone could help raise, or perhaps more realistically, opening a “PupShare”, where some could bring their canine companions for people without dogs to hang out with all day.
Quiet time in all of the pods is observed from 10pm until 10am, making the evening hours feel like a silent retreat. Conversation can be held in whispers, but tonight most of the residents retreat to their pods, reading, watching Netflix with their earbuds in, typing on laptops, or heading straight to sleep.
I fall asleep easily among the 30 or so strangers, until the wailing of fire trucks cuts the air at 1am. Soon after they pass, I hear the light snoring of Robin, the young man in the bottom bunk directly across from mine. Felipe, the guy in the bunk above him, doesn’t stir. Someone coughs in the distance. I get up to pee, acutely aware of how loud the tinkling is. The closet-like slatted doors don’t offer much privacy or sound shield. I contemplate flushing, but my experiences as a twentysomething in group housing and as a longtime citizen of a once drought-weary city encourage me to honor the hippie adage: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” In my bleariness, I am suddenly terrified of not finding my bunk – wandering the building all night in search of pod #18, or climbing into the wrong one, like that drunk guy – but I tiptoe back by the light of my Fitbit and drift off to sleep, missing the familiar snores of my husband and dog.
The podestrians wake up on different schedules. Some are showered and gone by 7am, others sleep in or take their time getting on with their day. The snorer who slept across from me makes his bed and is out the door by 8.30.
Everything is shared – the communal spaces, food on the communal shelf in the refrigerator, the wifi, even bathroom smells and sounds (given those louvered doors). But you can buy a $3 padlock for a locker, if needed. Residents say they don’t have problems with theft, as the openness promotes a culture of safety, with more eyes on whatever’s happening. Antisocial behavior will get you kicked out, and poor hygiene usually causes someone to “ask you to take a shower”, says Beck. Later, a Swedish woman asks for an early checkout due to her proximity to the bathroom. She says it was too noisy, despite wearing a set of the free earplugs offered in a basket in the entryway. When Pejic tries to appease her with a bed farther away from the noise, she declines: “I’m just going to stay with friends for the next few days.”
Some of the podestrians purposely keep their residence at PodShare a secret. In the Westwood location, an investment banker tells me he’s waiting on a big commission and doesn’t want his clients to know where he lives. In the small Los Feliz building, a man sits slumped in his top bunk, tapping on his phone all day, plastic shopping bags full of his belongings lined up against the wire rail guards. When I ask him if he’s up for an interview, he mumbles no, that he’s a truck driver with a back injury who “doesn’t need any trouble”. At the Hollywood location, there’s a woman who has been sleeping in her car but paying the $15 day rate periodically to use the shower and workspace while searching for a job. There are also a few like John, a 50-year-old man from Minnesota staying at PodShare Venice, who has been there on and off for five months while working a part-time tech job, deciding whether he actually wants to move to Los Angeles. For him, it’s more about commitment than income. “Six-month leases are stupid expensive. A year lease is hard to break if things don’t work out,” he says.
PodShare is advertised as a way to “co-live across our social network of locations”, since they offer flexible payment plans by the night, week and month, allowing podestrians a chance to live in any of the neighborhoods – though most don’t use it that way. Beck says she wishes more of them would take advantage of this opportunity: “I think 5% bounce around. I want 70% of them to bounce around. I wish they were more adventurous.”
PodShare works for those like Praveen Balaganesh, a 25-year-old who was born in Norway to Sri Lankan parents and raised in India before moving back to Norway. He moved to Los Angeles in January with a small savings, to pursue his dream of film-making. His sister told him about PodShare after watching a BuzzFeed video. “I’m an introvert, so I didn’t feel good about it at first,” Balaganesh admits, describing himself as someone who wouldn’t even shower at the public gym back home. Still, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like a frugal way to come to the mecca of entertainment. When taking a tour of the Westwood location, he did witness “two half-naked Irishmen wrestling in the main room”. “But,” he adds, “that was broken up pretty quickly.” After first staying in the Downtown and Los Feliz locations, he settled into the tiny Hollywood locale, close to a Metro station and the coffee shop where his film meet-up group gathers to brainstorm.
Balaganesh has four small suitcases shoved under a bed and a few items of clothing hanging on a makeshift rack nearby. To stretch his savings, he usually heats up frozen meals in the microwave, and the only other thing he has bought since coming to Los Angeles is a pair of sweatpants from Target. He has items from his old life in storage in Norway, which he says he has to get out at some point, but he doesn’t really miss them.
Almost five months to the date that he first moved into PodShare, Balaganesh leans over a camera on a dolly in the living room of a Tudor-style house in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood of Los Angeles, calling the shots as director of a short film called Dirty Faces, “about an Italian mafia boss who finds out that one of his henchmen is sleeping with his wife”. He also wrote the seven-page script himself. The lead actor is the roommate of a friend he met at PodShare. She introduced him to the cinematographer and one of the other actors as well. The producer and production assistant were found through his film meet-up group. A mini craft services spread is laid out in the kitchen, where a makeup artist sponge-dabs foundation into the crevices of the mafia don’s face. After Balaganesh checks the framing of the first few shots, he gives the actors some guidance on hand gestures and timing. They review their lines as the lighting is adjusted. Then the production assistant clacks the slate, and the soft-spoken director calls out: “Quiet on set. Action!”
The crew has the house for two days – it was rented through Airbnb (they’ve chosen to shoot guerrilla-style, since film permits are expensive) – and after filming and sleeping there, Balaganesh returns to his pod.
“I’ve come out of my shell,” he says of his time as a podestrian. “Now I can approach people and talk. As a writer, you want to talk to as many people as possible so you get different perspectives.”
A few weeks after shooting his first film, Balaganesh sits at the dining room table in the center of the Hollywood location, along with three other podestrians working on laptops. Beck pops in to fix one of the stairs, which doubles as a storage space, leading up to the upper bunks. “Some of the construction is a little wonky because I did it,” she laughs, giving the step a jiggle until it properly aligns and closes. She shows me the tiny soundproofed recording studio that’s available to residents. “Maybe someone will make a PodShare podcast here one day,” she says. Then she demonstrates how a lower bunk folds up and out into a desk for day use, a design she calls the “Murphy pod”.
Maloñ Mahotiere, a petite 25-year-old, emerges from the bathroom five feet away, freshly showered in a jeweled purple gown and full makeup. A few people ooh and aah and ask her where she is going. She tells us she is in town from Georgia and plans to attend a BET Awards party tonight. As Mahotiere folds her pajamas back into a carry-on-sized suitcase, Balaganesh heads out to meet his producer, John, in a nearby coffee shop, to check out their film’s rough cut. Once the film has been edited and color corrected, they’ll enter it in some short-film contests and then start shooting a horror flick that John wrote. To honor his visa, Balaganesh will have to briefly leave the country before returning again, but he plans to return to PodShare until he can get some roommates together to rent an apartment.
Pejic says that her plan is to eventually go back to Austria to become a teacher. “But I love the concept, I love PodShare, I love Elvina [Beck],” she says. And now she is in love. She recently returned to Europe to introduce her partner to her family, and soon they will travel to Mexico to meet her girlfriend’s family. After that, they’ll return to Los Angeles together – Pejic back to working as a resident assistant and her partner living at PodShare as a paying resident.
“I might just stay here forever,” Pejic says.
This story originally appeared on the digital storytelling platform Narratively. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions: