Close your eyes and picture a penthouse: Expansive floor plan, roof deck, maybe even a private elevator. It’s Jennifer Lopez’s four terraces overlooking Madison Square Park; Bad Bunny’s private lap pool; Brittany Murphy in Uptown Girls with all that cash in her freezer.
What you’re not picturing: The top floor of a low-rise multifamily with an identical layout to every apartment below it. And yet, penthouse creep is everywhere lately: An “airy Harlem penthouse” that is, in fact, just the third floor of a building. (Amenities include: “four ceiling fans” and proximity to Whole Foods.) A four-story building in Bushwick with an 850-square-foot “spacious penthouse.” The listing for a “gorgeous Washington Heights penthouse” that advertises private roof access, which is, upon closer inspection, just a stark, gray, unfinished roof. (Not even a strategically placed potted plant for staging.)
A recent Listings Project roundup included no fewer than seven listings that use the word “penthouse,” ranging from a fourth-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village to a five-bedroom listing with four other roommates in Williamsburg. It’s not that these apartments aren’t nice — many have an in-unit washer-dryer and some sort of outdoor space — they’re just not penthouse nice.
The city’s official building code defines a penthouse as “an enclosed structure on or above the roof of any part of a building, which is designed or used for human occupancy,” which was accurate enough in the days when they were generally used to house servants, but the city’s wealthiest residents soon realized that skyline-level living offered more privacy and better views. The luxury penthouse was born. Condé Nast built one of the first at 1040 Park Avenue, a duplex that had multiple salons and a ballroom. Helen Gurley Brown’s penthouse at Beresford was a quadruplex. They were priced accordingly. “These properties are considered custom works of art one can live in — and an asset class in their own right,” as one broker put it to Brick Underground. “They will always command top dollar.”
Which is of course why developers have long been trying to stretch the definition, with varying levels of incredulity. The New York Times noted a decade ago that the penthouse apartment had been “taken down a notch” by increasingly creative uses of the term and increasingly norm-y inhabitants. One renter who lived in a Nolita duplex with a roommate joked to the paper that when family or friends heard it was technically a penthouse, despite its lack of anything resembling luxury and the fact that he shared it, they responded: “Oh.”