A strange opinion that’s been floating around lately is that we need to accept windowless bedrooms as an imminent fact of life if we want to solve the housing crisis. Surprise, surprise, this take seems to originate with chronic bad-idea haver Matthew Yglesias, who wrote an October Substack on the issue. Windowless bedrooms have already been in the news for a few years, owing to their use in the hotly contested and weirdly personal project of billionaire Charlie Munger’s eponymous Munger Hall student dorms at the University of California–Santa Barbara. While the quixotic billionaire had the capital to force architects to bring his deranged architectural machinations into reality (that is, until they quit), Yglesias borrowed the concept from Philadelphia developer Bobby Fijan—whose firm, Cross Property Management, it must be noted, was listed on the Philadelphia Tenant Union’s Hall of Shame for attempting to mass-evict tenants in a building the company purchased for redevelopment. Great stuff. Fijan, who is not an architect, is notable for tweeting potential floor plans he’s cooked up as proposals for improving apartment efficiency, which is developer-speak for cramming as many units in one building as possible. The plan Yglesias chose to use as his example involved retrofitting an office building with an awkward layout—one with a great deal of distance from windows to the core—into apartments, something necessitating bedrooms without windows.
Flats with windowless bedrooms, even Yglesias admits, are “probably not many people’s first choice of dwelling type.” Yet he goes on and on about how they should be legalized because someone will choose to live there if it means a lower rent and how we’ll have to take one for the team so that there will be enough apartments in the city for all of us. This is, to put it bluntly, bullshit, straight from the mouth of the guy who said it’s OK that different countries have different safety standards after 87 people died in the collapse of a Bangladeshi factory in 2013.
First of all, I won’t bother to dissect Fijan’s hypothetical floor plans because I think an architectural analysis misses the point of why this sucks. However, I will say a clever architect is capable of arranging space—even difficult-to-work-with space—in such a way that they can avoid obvious problems like windowless bedrooms. That is literally their job. Second, windows are obviously not the reason rents are high. The reasons rents are high are not in any way architectural, but rather are fundamentally political. Pretending otherwise is a convenient distraction from the realities imposed on the city by predatory developers and landlords, poor urban planning and land use practices leading to low supply, a lack of renter protection, and the G-word—gentrification. Pretty much everywhere, rent used to be cheaper and, guess what, those buildings, at least post–tenement laws, had windows.
What is at stake here is not pesky apartment “inefficiency”: It is, and I am not being hyperbolic, 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, and everyone who pretends otherwise certainly won’t end up on the side of the have-nots. The argument that people are willing to take a windowless bedroom in exchange for lower rent ignores the fact that many don’t want to for obvious reasons (misery and temporal disorientation) and that they shouldn’t have to deprive themselves in the first place. The windowless bedroom is not a clever building solution; it’s just rent-seeking on the backs of the urban desperate.
Light in bedrooms—even if it is just faint light from an alley light well like that of my last apartment—is necessary for a whole host of biological and psychological reasons. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Natural light helps regulate our circadian rhythm, the natural process that tells our bodies when to be asleep or awake. According to UCLA Health, workers who worked in no-light offices suffered from lowered serotonin levels, poor sleep, and depression. Always the contrarians, Yglesias and Co. would argue that many people use blackout curtains in order to keep different sleep schedules, block out noise, etc. But you can opt in to blackout curtains if you want to. You cannot put a window where there is not one.
This is not to say I don’t think there are a lot of design improvements to be made in the way we build apartments, such as adopting the more flexible single-stair layouts that are common and successful in Europe and by utilizing environmentally sustainable technologies like mass timber construction and Passivhaus, an ultra-low energy building practice. I also agree that cities need to densify in order to accommodate more people across all income levels. However, I do believe that the city is for all of us, that we as residents and inhabitants deserve basic rights to shelter and that said shelter should be not only humane but also—hopefully after great political effort—beautiful and a joy to live in. Building codes, for all their often problematic stuffiness, do exist to protect us. 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.
Windowless bedrooms are a solution made up by people who certainly won’t be living in them. 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. It’s an austerity mindset that urban space is so limited that we should all make sacrifices in order to live where we want, when in reality we should be fighting like hell to secure our place and our dignity in the commons. I no longer bother to argue whether that’s through supply-side YIMBYism or through tenant organizing or rent control. Both sides of the debate, however, should realize that normal people don’t want to live in a closet, and preying on the desperation of some in order to line the pockets of others is not the answer. Speaking personally, I do not want to live in a world where I know my neighbors don’t have access to the sun, the coming and going of the day, which is one of the only free, universal blessings bestowed upon Earth. That some want to put a price on that is despicable.