housing crisis

What Does the Mayor Have Against Windows?

Photo: Curbed; Photo: Getty/WireImage

“Why can’t we do a real examination of the rules that state every bedroom must have a window?” Eric Adams asked Monday during a housing panel hosted by WNYC. “You don’t need no window where you’re sleeping, it should be dark!” The mayor’s feelings about natural light were part of a longer riff on affordable housing in which he approvingly name-checked WeWork’s failed co-living arm, WeLive, and made a disjointed case for both dormitory-style microunits and “a modern-day almost-SRO concept.” Neither of which, apparently, need windows. But Adams’s vision of New Yorkers sleeping in little dark boxes isn’t some weird Adams-ism; it’s actually a pretty established proposal among some voices in real estate. The case against windows is totally a thing.

Windows, at least on paper, have been legally required in all New York City bedrooms since at least 1867, as the city began to introduce new regulations for its cramped, often dangerous tenement houses. But then as now, these laws were loosely enforced, and what constitutes access to natural light or legal emergency egress is often an opening that peers into a shaft or stairwell. So while the windowless bedroom, or functionally windowless every room in darkened, interior-facing apartments, isn’t an unfamiliar concept for most New Yorkers, there’s a heightened level of interest in the idea — and the accompanying building-code tweaks — as offices across Manhattan sit mostly empty. As my colleague Justin Davidson has noted, the effort to convert offices into residences, while seemingly easy, is, in practice, much more difficult, because commercial building codes didn’t dictate the same light requirements for workspaces. “A fat building’s deep interior,” Davidson writes, “close to the mail room and far from the windows, would be too dark and airless for anyone to live in — either pleasantly or legally.”

This is where the windowless-bedroom boosters swoop in to save the day. “Neither Philadelphia nor D.C. has the window in bedroom requirement,” Bobby Fijan, a developer and apartment consultant, tweeted in response to Adams’s remarks. “As a result, despite lower rents and equivalent construction costs, Philly and D.C. have converted 5x the number of apartment units from old office buildings than NYC in the past several years.” Fijan is kind of a one-man anti-bedroom-window think tank, sharing floor plans and listing photos of such units across the country. The way to fix New York City’s housing crisis, windowless proponents like Fijan argue, is to move living space to the natural-lit exterior perimeter and push the bedrooms into the center. (Although some say that living rooms don’t necessarily need to have windows, either.) This is the “floor plan of the future,” Matt Yglesias wrote last year, positioning this 1:1 exchange of dimly lit cubicles for windowless bedrooms as the way to “save downtowns.” In this scenario, remote workers are still forced to occupy the dark cores of the office towers they didn’t want to return to, but at least this time they’ll be sleeping.

Some people might not mind a bedroom without windows — just look how much Americans spend on blackout curtains — but there’s good reason to be skeptical of the idea that windows are the thing holding cities back from solving their housing crises. Like the city’s unpermitted basement apartments, loosening restrictions would very likely expand the housing supply in some areas, but would also very likely compel many of the residents who have the least choice about where to live into the least-desirable (and potentially deadly) living conditions. In London, a fast-tracked permitting system for office conversions created 65,000 new units over six years, but analysis found 70 percent of the units did not meet spatial standards, including access to natural light. “Developers are trying to cram people into small, dark places, which is symptomatic of a much wider failure to provide the kind of decent housing that we need,” Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, told The Guardian. Ted Ferringer, senior associate at Bialosky Architects, which has offices in Cleveland and New York City, says that while he’s worked on projects with windowless bedrooms, his concern is normalizing them. “While they are generally legal in most situations, the underlying reasons they are often employed is a symptom of larger economic and code issues that affect multifamily housing construction,” he says. To make a windowless bedroom the default without more serious code reforms “is putting worse Band-Aids on the wound.” Which is to say, affordable housing should not become miserable housing.

Because the real problem isn’t just the question of requiring windows in bedrooms, it’s the entire ecosystem of regulations, nearly always subject to the whims of the market, which govern the way virtually all new apartment buildings are conceived and built in the United States. “These are double-loaded corridors, hotel-like buildings with a hall running down the middle and single-aspect dwellings on either side,” as Larch Lab’s Michael Eliason describes them in a policy paper that explains why even U.S. apartments with windows aren’t all that airy or bright. “These homes tend to get little daylight, and have no opportunity to cross ventilate or mitigate urban noise.”

There’s a good case to be made for New York City permitting and building a more diverse range of apartment types, and these can definitely be smaller and more SRO-esque, like the handsome under-400-square-foot microunits the city has piloted. But smaller housing, or dormitory-style units, or would-be windowless bedrooms in Manhattan’s struggling business districts are not intrinsically affordable. As anyone alive in the city can tell you right now, terrible apartments — like extremely terrible, fridge-in-the-bedroom terrible — are still very expensive. That’s the hostage logic of the private housing market. In order to make the city’s housing stock more affordable, the mayor needs to start looking for models beyond what Adam Neumann and “data optimized” floor-plan consultants of the world are pushing. There’s not anything particularly magic about a windowless bedroom that makes an apartment cheap. The only guarantee is that it will be dark.

What Does the Mayor Have Against Windows?