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Austin outlaws the construction of windowless bedrooms

Julia Mahavier, a senior at UT Austin, makes her bed in her West Campus apartment. This is the second year Mahavier has rented a windowless bedroom as a student.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Julia Mahavier, a senior at UT Austin, makes her bed in her West Campus apartment. This is the second year Mahavier has rented a windowless bedroom as a student.

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Developers in Austin will have to provide some form of natural light in bedrooms after Austin City Council members voted Thursday to amend the city’s building code.

For the most part, Austin will accomplish this change by simply replacing one word in the International Building Code that many cities adopt. The rules, which dictate safety standards for commercial buildings including apartments, require developers to provide natural “or” artificial light in rooms where people sleep. Austin will change that “or” to an “and.” The change goes into effect on May 20.

For at least two decades, developers have built thousands of windowless bedrooms. Most of these are in apartments serving students in West Campus, the neighborhood directly west of UT Austin.

By not needing to have a window, developers could build more bedrooms, housing more students and pocketing more rent. But professors and students have spent years advocating to prohibit the construction of windowless bedrooms out of concern for students’ mental health. Studies show having access to natural light increases alertness and decreases depressive symptoms.

“Windows should be a human right,” said Juan Miró, an architecture professor at UT Austin who has been one of the loudest voices advocating for this change. “A lot of students went through the pandemic in those windowless rooms. … They were telling me, ‘It’s horrible.’”

Aashka Shroff is one of those students. The UT Austin junior spent a semester in 2022 living in a windowless bedroom in West Campus.

“I remember I would take a nap [during the day] and I would have to leave the light on otherwise I would wake up to complete darkness,” Shroff said. “It was pretty disorienting.”

Developers have argued that getting rid of the ability to build windowless bedrooms will increase the cost of housing because they won’t be able to build as many bedrooms. But supporters of prohibiting new windowless bedrooms from being built also support more housing for students. They say the two don’t have to be at odds.

“I agree that any development cost impacts are to be disregarded in this instance. Just as we cannot object to the cost implications of sprinkler systems and ADA compliance,” Jason Haskins, a director at h+uo architects in Austin, told council members before the vote. “This is providing a bare minimum occupancy standard.”

To address the concern about added cost, the city identified an option: under the new rules developers will be allowed to build a window that pulls in “borrowed light”. This could mean having a bedroom window that faces a living room with natural light, thereby “borrowing” the light from somewhere else.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Shroff's year at UT. She is a junior, not a senior.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.