A public conversation about housing in New York renews discussion of problematic windowless bedrooms

“Please, Sir, May I Have Some [Light]?”

A public conversation about housing in New York renews discussion of problematic windowless bedrooms

Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot (1889) by Jacob Riis (Public Domain)

A week ago, New York City mayor Eric Adams participated in a live conversation at The Greene Space about the future of housing in the city. In a targeted exchange with Josefa Velasquez, an economics and equity editor for WNYC and Gothamist, the mayor cycled through talking points about housing, homelessness, and the effects of the pandemic.

Articles responding to the event focused on one of the most hotly debated topics for urbanism Twitter: windowless bedrooms. “Why can’t we do a real examination of the rules that state every bedroom must have a window?” Adams asked. “You don’t need no window where you’re sleeping, it should be dark!” This would presumably apply to both office conversions and, possibly, a new form of SRO pitched by Adams.

Adams’s message is pro-growth: His housing plan, released last December, calls for the delivery of half a million units over the next ten years. This would happen through a plethora of measures, including rezoning, legalizing basement units, converting office buildings into housing, allowing the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development to preserve more affordable housing, and giving the City more muscle when approving residential construction in dense areas. “We should be building—particularly in places in Manhattan, where you have access to food, access to transportation, and access to good schools,” Adams said last Monday. “If we want to integrate a segregated city, then we need to start building in communities that have access to these good qualities.”

Adams’s pitches sync up with some of the more development-pilled voices who are searching for ways to deliver more housing and to do so through mechanisms of office conversions. (The New York Times recently published two examples of this, but, as evidenced by critic Justin Davidson’s commissioning of ARO to rethink 260 Madison Avenue in 2021, the ambition has been swirling for years.) Writing in Curbed, Alissa Walker said “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.”

It’s also a regular subject for Matt Yglesias—“the perennial bedbug of online discourse,” in Kate Wagner’s view—who Substacked about the idea last September in a post titled “To save downtowns, we need to embrace windowless bedrooms” that included a gnarly four-bedroom floor plan; each suite (bedroom, walk-in closet, and bathroom) had zero windows. The imaginary occupants’ priorities are evidenced in the draftsperson’s choice of entourage: One of the living areas is staged with the outline of a pool table.

In New York, though, windowless bedrooms are illegal. But maybe not for long? Windowless bedrooms are legal in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which may explain why those jurisdictions have converted significantly more buildings into housing than New York. Windowless bedrooms were at the center of controversy over Munger Hall (a.k.a. “Dormzilla), proposed for UC Santa Barbara. (The project is moving forward, with a slight redesign.) Last year, Juan Miró wrote against their usage in dormitories at UT Austin. Miró stressed the “detrimental effects on building occupants” and shared the experiences of students who lived in these rooms: “Waking up every morning in total darkness never fails to create anxiety, which is a terrible start to each day,” one student commented.

The windowless bedroom debate is contentious not because of arguments on how to spatially treat modernism’s deep plates, but more because of how it represents the continued erosion of support for the most precarious among us. It might be fine to imagine how windowless bedrooms support the iterant lifestyle of well-to-do tech bros as they circulate around the planet, but it quickly becomes problematic when imagining buildings carved up to smaller and darker units for, say, low-income families or immigrants. Questionable housing arrangements caused 11 deaths in New York basements during Hurricane Ida in 2021 and 17 deaths during a fire in the Bronx last summer.

AN contributor Kate Wagner, writing in The Nation, argued that “windowless bedrooms are a solution made up by people who certainly won’t be living in them.” The strategy is nothing less than “the commodification of sunlight as an amenity, something you pay extra for like marble countertops or a walk-in closet. If windowless bedrooms are allowed, they will become yet another dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.” Wagner links to research that states “Decades of studies have shown that natural light has a powerful, and often positive, effect not only on mental health, but also on physical health and general well-being.”

Similarly, Kian Goh, a professor at UCLA and author of Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice, tweeted that “the thing about windowless rooms is it’s not a design issue – we can design cool windowless room for any floor plan. It’s that we rely on code minimums to protect the health and welfare of the most marginalized in an unjust, unequal society.”

David Madden, a sociologist at LSE and coauthor with Peter Marcuse of In Defense of Housing, tweeted that “the discussion (in New York & elsewhere) about windowless rooms is surreal & ahistorical. Windowless rooms were banned in NYC starting from 1879 Tenement House Act (the ‘Old Law’) not because of aesthetics but because they helped spread pandemics & were extremely deadly in fires.” He continued: “The fact that economics bloggers and landlord mayors want to jettison basic fire safety regulations shows how little the lives of poor and working-class city dwellers count for them–and how deranged the online housing discourse has become.”

Rather than a clunky, TED talk–style idea of “disruptive” innovation, the windowless bedroom represents the continued squeezing of gains from market urbanism at the expense of public health. It commodifies what we have, for 150 years, taken for granted. It is further evidence that links today’s extreme wealth inequality with that of the Victorian era, during which the very reforms emerged that now stand to be loosened.

In the late 1800s, a series of investigations by Jacob Riis culminated in How the Other Half Lives, a photojournalism exposé documenting how the residents of New York’s tenements lived, often in crowded rooms without light or bathrooms. While the dumbbell plan was the work of the “Old Law,” passed in 1879, Riis’s work helped inspire the new law, passed in 1901, which mandated further improvements. Under that law, window areas were required to be at least ten percent of the room’s area, and bathrooms (“water-closet compartments and bathrooms”) must have a window of at least three square feet.

In the Lower East Side, a NYCHA project of nearly 1,200 units bears Jacob Riis’s name. Finished in 1949, it is now the victim of deferred maintenance. Last fall, a water-testing debacle upended the lives of residents, causing some to file lawsuits. In his recent exchange, Mayor Adams was clear that the city should continue to support NYCHA, as it is “the best access to affordable housing we have.” Still, the organization, which houses one of every sixteen New Yorkers, is in serious need: It requires $40 billion in major repairs.

Architects, of course, stand ready to provide the professional services required by their clients. But they also have a responsibility to the conditions of the lives lived within their works. (The AIA’s Code of Ethics states that “members shall not engage conduct involving wanton disregard of the rights of others.”) Progressive-era tenement laws, along with technological advances, ushered in an era of “alphabetical” buildings which responded to the needs of the age. The same task is required today, and it requires sociopolitical—not technical—solutions.