Lux et Veritas : Can my apartment windows be blocked over?
January 20, 2006 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Looks like the one story warehouse next door has been put up FOR SALE. Problem is that if a building goes up in its stead, two of my windows will be covered over. Do I have any rights or say in the matter?

I rent an apartment on the top story of a three story tenement in East Williamsburg Brooklyn. The property line is flush with the warehouse. I do have other windows other then the two in question. The NYC Dept. Of Buildings website has nothing about what a friend has termed "air rights" or "sightline" issues. Am I screwed? After 10 years making this neighborhood a real home have the wolves of the rapacious and brutish Real Estate industry arrived at my doorstep to entomb me w/o proper natural light? Any advice would helpful. Thank you.
posted by Skygazer to Home & Garden (19 answers total)
Buy it yourself as a business. You will be in control, and you might make some money.
posted by caddis at 11:43 AM on January 20, 2006

You say the "property line is flush with the warehouse" -- does your building also sit flush with the property line?
posted by ewagoner at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2006

I don't know what it's like in NYC, but in Chicago, the basic rule is that you don't have any rights to a sight-line.

However, since you haven't mentioned any proposed changes here, this isn't an issue yet. If someone comes along and wants to tear it down and build a 3-story whatever, there might be some sort of rezoning or variance which they need to receive first. If so, your best bet is to oppose it with a coordinated group of area residents. Of course, as a renter, your opinion matters less than a property owner's.

All that is a whole new ball of AskMe questions, though.
posted by MrZero at 11:51 AM on January 20, 2006

There might be some sort of rezoning or variance which they need to receive first ... your best bet is to oppose it with a coordinated group of area residents.

What he said. You should be calling the city clerk's office to determine if there have been any meetings on this subject, or if any are upcoming, or what the zoning process is in your community.
posted by frogan at 12:05 PM on January 20, 2006

If they covered your windows and made it so you couldn't exit through them, that would be a violation of the fire code?

Maybe I misunderstand your question, though.
posted by jon_kill at 12:07 PM on January 20, 2006

Legally you are probably screwed, unless you can get the owner of the property to give you an easement of view (in other words, you pay them a ton of money in exchange for them not building high enough to block your view), but this would be both expensive and unlikely.
posted by falconred at 12:07 PM on January 20, 2006

Caddis: I've thought long and hard along those lines, but I think I would in over my head.

ewagoner: Yes, sorry that's what I meant. My building sits flush with the property line.

MrZero: The whole area has recently been rezoned for residential use and tall buildings, regardless of stiff opposition by the neighborhood. Thanks to our Real Estate developer-loving/renter-hating Mayor Bloomberg. Commercial use can be "grandfathered in" though..
posted by Skygazer at 12:11 PM on January 20, 2006

In that case, to answer your question: Yes, you're probably screwed.
posted by cribcage at 12:31 PM on January 20, 2006

You're screwed. There was a website, called, about the plight of the residents of the Chatsworth on W. 72nd St. when Trump Place Tower V was erected. Basically Trump put blank walls up with 24 inches of clearance to the windows of the adjoining Chatsworth; which used to look out onto the Hudson River. Their lawsuit failed; the property values of the Chatsworth were ruined.

NYC building codes now make it unlawful to put windows on a property line, for just this reason.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2006

I rent an apartment on the top story of a three story tenement in East Williamsburg Brooklyn.

As a renter, you're doubly screwed. Even if there are any sightline rights (which there probably aren't), they wouldn't be yours... they'd be the owner of your property's.

Have you told your landlord that you believe that his apartment is about to be worth less rent because of the near-term proximity of a construction site and the longer term loss of a view?
posted by toxic at 12:47 PM on January 20, 2006

I'm with cribcage. Sorry!
posted by ewagoner at 12:57 PM on January 20, 2006

You want this, but I don't think it works any more.
posted by jewzilla at 1:19 PM on January 20, 2006

I live in exactly the same area. In almost every situation, an effort to preserve or maintain an aspect of life that I consider to be a fundamental amenity is ignored, at best.

Explaining that it reduces property value doesn't rouse landlords into action. Because they know that's not really true-- in this neighborhood property values are going to go up and up regardless, and when an old building gets so dilapidated that they no one can stand to live in it anymore, they'll simply tear it down or sell the property for a whole new fortune. If they block off your windows and you move out in disgust, your place will be rented for way more than you are paying now.

I've made peace with all of this by chalking it up to a natural feature of living in an unnaturally large, fickle, careless city. Someday if I really want to build a real lasting home and have control over my surroundings, I'm sure I'll be moving to completely different surroundings.

Sorry if this seems bitter-- I'm moving out of this apartment this year because of similar problems. I hope I can afford to stay in the neighborhood....
posted by hermitosis at 1:44 PM on January 20, 2006

Looking at NYC zoning regulations for residential districts (reached from this Department of City Planning page ), some possibly relevant text appears on page 78, regarding the magic word - "setback" - the distance from yard boundaries to the sides of buildings (in this case, the side of the building, not the front or back, which have different setback requirements). As I read the text (and I'm not a lawyer or architect or planner or someone familiar with NYC zoning), if you're in an R5 district, and the building is going to be 53 feet high, then it can't be any closer than 10 feet from the edge of the lot. (If 63 feet high, then 15 feet, if 73 feet high, then 20, and so on.)

Another magic word is "variance". That's when the owner/building files paperwork to build something that isn't strictly to in accordance with zoning codes - like less of a setback (so the building can be bigger, and the profit larger). Normally notices of such requests are supposed to be posted, containing a hearing date and an address to submit comments. So what you may be worried about is a variance being granted. It may be worth checking once a week or so with the appropriate building department folks about whether a zoning variance has been filed (along with looking at any publicly available building plans that have been filed).

Finally, you do have one recourse even as a renter that may be worth pursing - contact the office of your elected borough (city?) representatives. It may not worth doing this unless you think the process is being distorted (in favor of the developer/owner). If you do this with several other people, it will have much more impact (then you won't be taken as someone who doesn't have better things to do with his/her time than bother people who have to be nice to voters.
posted by WestCoaster at 1:54 PM on January 20, 2006

This is Williamsburg you're talking about. Do you think anything is going to be able to stop developers from building mega apartment complexes? Not as long as everyone keeps wanting to live there.

Probably your best shot is calling 311. I'm sure they're used to dealing with lots of this type of complaint, but I'm not sure there's anything to be done.
posted by booksandlibretti at 2:56 PM on January 20, 2006

Try looking up the address on Property Shark to find out more about it...
posted by sad_otter at 2:58 PM on January 20, 2006

Absent city zoning regulations to the contrary, you have no property right to sightlines or light (or rather the owner of your building lacks those rights) and you have no viable nuisance complaint. There is something called "ancient lights" doctrine in England that is sometimes applicable in these situations, but this is the US and we don't have an equivalent doctrine.

There have been some exceptions to this general rule when the light being blocked had been used for solar panels and whatnot, but such exceptions are rare.
posted by Falconetti at 5:40 PM on January 20, 2006

On the off chance that it might exist, look for easements in the neighboring property's line of title restricting the owner's right to block light to where you live. Also look into possible sales of "air rights" above the building next door.

Even if there are such restrictions, they would be in favor of your landlord, not you.

If the next-door owner hasn't gotten a building permit yet, you could try to intervene and object to any permit that would result in your window being blocked.

If the new building is actually touching the one where you live, so that there's no space at all between your window and the wall, this may cause the building where you live to violate the building code provisions requiring vetilation, emergency escape, or some other provision. This could let you break your lease without penalty and move elsewhere.

Otherwise, as Falconetti says, you're probably out of luck.
posted by KRS at 1:47 PM on January 21, 2006

Thanks for the input everyone. This is the best information I've been able to acquire on this matter so far. Special thanks to WestCoaster for the Zoning Regulations for Residential Districts pdf. There's an amazing amount of excellent information in there. Sad_Otters Property Shark site also provided invaluable information directly about my building and the one for sale next door (Which is actually categorized as a G2-Garage) . Also thanks for the great ideas and possible angles of approach (Caddis and KRS).

Half the battle in this sort of thing is having the proper terminology (i.e., "easement", "Variance" as well as the concept of "FAR" which is "the Ratio of Building SF to Lot SF". The sadly lapsed law of "Ancient Light" is an intriguing one. It would make a good name for a tenants group.

I don't rightly know how this is going to turn out, hell the structure next door might just remain a garage (not holding my breath on that) but I do feel better prepared to fight it or at least accept the outcome if it's not so great. Hermitosis and booksandlibretti keep the faith. The developers want you to think they can't be resisted or fought. I think most of the moneyed trendsters that are overrunning Brooklyn want to actually live in Manhattan. That's always been the historical ebb and flow of this city. I think there's going to be a lot of EMPTY cheap apartments in Brooklyn, in the upcoming years as the R.E. bubble further disintegrates. Especially in the areas with these artificially created R.E. values, which are created by (who else) the banks. I take as my inspiration the fact that Japan went through a similar housing bubble up until 1991 and then R.E. values went down for the next 14 years losing 40% of their valuation. Problem is it might mess up the economy. You can read more about it here and here.

If anyone comes across this in the future and needs advice feel free to email me and I'll let you know how this finally went down.

Thx Mefi.
posted by Skygazer at 1:51 PM on January 24, 2006

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