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Austin, Texas, is looking to ban building windowless bedrooms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Have you ever lived in a bedroom without a window? They're not rare, especially in student housing, including in Austin, Texas, where developers have built thousands of them. But as Audrey McGlinchy with member station KUT reports, Austin is now taking aim at bedrooms without windows.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: Juan Miro teaches architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Every year, he gives his undergrads an assignment - draw the window in your bedroom.

JUAN MIRO: I had students that'd tell me, I don't have a window in my bedroom. I'd say, what do you mean? That's impossible. That's illegal.

MCGLINCHY: Miro is originally from Spain. He's lived all over. He knows having a bedroom with no access to natural light is illegal in many places - Mexico City, New York, Chicago - but not in Austin. The city's building code gives developers an option.

MIRO: They say, you need to have natural light according to this section - da, da, da - or artificial light according to this section.

MCGLINCHY: Since natural light is not required in bedrooms, developers have built thousands of windowless ones, mostly in student apartments. If you don't need a window, you can build more bedrooms. More bedrooms means more housing and also more profit for the builder. KUT reached out to half a dozen developers who have built windowless bedrooms in Austin. None would talk to us.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thought your college dorm was bad? Check out this proposed windowless mega dorm at UC Santa Barbara.

MCGLINCHY: In 2021, the University of California at Santa Barbara announced it would build a mostly windowless dorm with the help of a wealthy donor. The plan was eventually scrapped after a huge public outcry.

ZO QADRI: And I remember thinking to myself, oh, my God, that's awful.

MCGLINCHY: This is Austin councilmember Zo Qadri. After years of advocacy from Miro and students, Qadri led the effort to prohibit the construction of windowless bedrooms. Last week, the city council passed the ordinance. The change goes into effect next month with one exception. Developers will be able to build windows that let in, quote, "borrowed light," so a window that faces another room with natural light. When councilmember Qadri took up this item, he thought of his two sisters. Both lived in windowless bedrooms as students, one still does. Qadri says she sometimes asks to spend the night at his apartment.

QADRI: I think it really does affect the mental wellbeing and the mental stress of the student.

MCGLINCHY: Numerous studies by psychologists show that natural light helps people feel more alert, less depressed and regulates our carcadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when it's time to sleep or wake up. Without a window, you can lose sense of time. Julia Mahavier knows this feeling well. The senior at UT Austin rents a windowless bedroom at a private building off campus.

JULIA MAHAVIER: I'm waking up and it's completely pitch-black. I don't know what the weather is. I don't know what it looks like outside.

MCGLINCHY: It was sunny the day I met Mahavier at her apartment. To get a sense of what it's like living in a windowless bedroom, I asked her to turn off the lights.

Whoa. It is very dark in here.

I could barely make out my own hand. Recently, one of Mahavier's roommates moved out, leaving behind a bedroom with a window.

MAHAVIER: I literally just took my bedding and plopped it on here and my alarm clock, and that's it.

MCGLINCHY: She's been sleeping in her roommate's old room for the past couple of weeks, just her sheets, an alarm clock and, yeah, a window. For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENT FAIYAZ, DRAKE AND THE NEPTUNES' "WASTING TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Audrey McGlinchy
Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.