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Sunlight in your bedroom could become a luxury as cities debate allowing landlords to rent windowless rooms in former office buildings to alleviate the housing crisis
By Eliza Relman,
Housing advocates are debating whether windowless bedrooms are the solution to the housing crisis.
A severe housing shortage and empty office buildings has prompted some to call for loosening regulations.
But many others argue bedrooms without natural light are inhumane.
Things have gotten heated between housing advocates who disagree on the importance of indoor natural light.
The debate over whether bedrooms should be legally required to have windows has gained steam as cities across the country grapple with the "office apocalypse," or the emptying of downtowns as a result of the explosion of remote work since the pandemic.
Many agree that cities need to rapidly convert office space into homes to stem the bleeding in urban cores. But many office buildings are too deep to allow for windows in the rooms that would be closest to the center of the building. Enter windowless bedrooms.
Journalist Matt Yglesias argued last year that windowless bedrooms would "save downtowns" by facilitating the mass retrofitting of office buildings into apartments.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently weighed in on the debate.
"Why can't we do a real examination of the rules that state every bedroom must have a window?" he asked during an interview on WNYC this month. "You don't need no window where you're sleeping, it should be dark!"
Supporters argue that building apartments with windowless bedrooms could both help alleviate the severe housing shortage and affordability crisis and repopulate urban business districts.
Critics say that lowering the floor on living standards is exploitative, unhealthy for inhabitants, and risks a slippery slope in which the basic elements of humane housing — in this case, sunlight — are increasingly treated as luxuries. They argue it would disproportionately impact the most vulnerable.
The debate has turned fans of housing density — also known as YIMBYs, which stands for "Yes In My Backyard" — against each other. Advocates on both sides allege the other is neglecting the interests of low-income tenants, including those experiencing homelessness, who'd be most likely to live in a windowless room.
From tenements to college dorms
Local governments have long regulated window requirements in housing. New York City banned windowless bedrooms in 1867 with its Tenement House Act, which mandated windows in every habitable room in order to reduce disease and fire-related deaths in cramped, crowded housing.
But in recent years, windowless bedrooms have become somewhat normalized on college campuses.
Charles Munger, a billionaire investor and right-hand to Warren Buffett, was behind the Michigan dorm and made waves when he donated $200 million to the University of California, Santa Barbara in exchange for the opportunity to build an 11-story dormitory complex with nearly 4,500 windowless, single-occupancy bedrooms. The controversial Munger Hall project has faced a barrage of criticism from architects, students, and community members and described as having a "prison-like design" in a 200-page independent review of the proposal.
An architect consulted on the Santa Barbara project quit in protest in October 2021, calling it a "social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves."
Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and author of the popular McMansion Hell blog, recently condemned the idea of windowless bedrooms in The Nation, calling it "rent-seeking on the backs of the urban desperate." She decried "the commodification of sunlight as an amenity" like "marble countertops or a walk-in closet."
"Fundamentally, what reneging on certain restrictions means is not some kind of new era of abundance but a libertarian step backward into the days of the tenement," she wrote. "The idea that we need to do away with such basic human necessities as light is based on an inherently Darwinian view of the city and who gets to inhabit it."
Wagner took aim at Yglesias, who shot back at her in a tweet suggesting that those who oppose windowless bedrooms aren't concerned enough with housing for people experiencing homelessness.
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