Smoke-Free: How One New York City High-Rise Kicked the Habit

By Leah Grout-Garris
High Rise Facilities Magazine, March 25, 2013

Looking for a no-cost way to reduce operating costs in a residential high-rise without sacrificing tenant comfort or satisfaction? Try implementing a smoke-free policy.

Studies now show that smoke-free policies could save residential landlords millions (if not billions) of dollars per year in cleaning costs alone. In California, for example, a UCLA study estimates that residential landlords could save a combined $18 million each year if they didn’t have to clean up after tenants who smoked.

Kenbar Management’s 1510 Lexington Place was the first smoke-free residential high-rise in New York City.

“The difference between a non-smoking and a heavy-smoking unit when it comes to cleaning is almost sixfold,” says Jeanie Orr, project coordinator at the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition in Albany, NY. On average, she estimates that cleaning a non-smoking unit costs around $550. A heavy-smoking unit costs closer to $3,500 in rehab costs.

And cleaning doesn’t always eliminate the after-effects of tenants who smoked. Everyone knows about the health problems associated with second-hand smoke. But tobacco residual can linger on carpet, walls, furniture, bedding, and drapery long after smoking stops , known as third-hand smoke , and mix with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix that can be worse than second-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke resists traditional cleaning, builds up over time, and can’t be eliminated by opening windows or running fans.

“Studies show that up to 60 percent of the air is shared in multi-unit dwellings because of shared walls and ventilation,” says Orr. “You can’t escape it if your neighbor is smoking.”

How One Building Went Smoke-Free
Kinne Yon, who works with her brother Neal Sigety as a developer for Kenbar Management in New York City, decided to make Kenbar’s 1510 Lexington high-rise property smoke-free.

Under construction at the time, Yon and Sigety were pursuing LEED Silver certification for the 18-story building. As part of that process, they were looking for ways to control the quality of the indoor environment.

“LEED certification requires you to control tobacco smoke. Normally, the way you do that is by not putting outlets back-to-back, super-sealing an apartment, better door seals, etc.,” she explains. But the more they thought about it, the more Yon and Sigety wondered why smoking should be allowed in the new building at all.

The tenants living in Kenbar’s other buildings were very health-focused. “Probably 15 percent of our tenants are doctors, or are in medical school,” says Yon. “And our buildings are close to Central Park, so tenants spend a lot of time running in the park, as well as in the gym.” So she took a cue from current tenants, and assumed that 1510 Lexington’s tenants would be health-conscious as well.

Yon explained the smoke-free idea to Kenbar’s attorney, who wasn’t sold on restricting smoking in a residential building. But a few months later, Yon saw a piece about the federal government going smoke-free with public housing due largely in part to the damages second-hand smoke can cause. “We thought, ÔÇÿWait a minute ÔǪ if the federal government can do this, why can’t we?’ ”

So Yon went back to her attorney, and they put together lease language both parties were comfortable with. The lease states that Kenbar will do everything it can to make the building smoke-free. “If someone reports that they smell smoke, then we will take every action we can to stop the smoke or get this person out of the building if they won’t stop smoking,” explains Yon. But if a tenant smells smoke, or starts smoking, they can’t stop paying rent.

After the decision was made to implement the policy, Kenbar started advertising 1510 Lexington as a smoke-free residential high-rise in early 2010, officially making it the first smoke-free residential building in New York City. Some naysayers wondered how a smoke-free building would be perceived, especially during a time when residential high-rises were struggling to find tenants.

What the Tenants Say
“The feedback has been very positive,” emphasizes Yon. She estimated that less than one percent of the company’s tenants in other buildings were smokers, and some of them chose not to smoke in their units due to lingering odors, other family members, etc. “That one percent is small, but it really impacts the quality of life for the non-smokers. So we didn’t feel like we were restricting anyone’s right to smoke.”

Kenbar is upfront with prospective tenants about the building’s non-smoking policy. And thanks to the American Cancer Society’s Healthy High-Rises program, 1510 Lexington also has a sticker on its front entrance advertising the smoke-free policy. This program recognizes smoke-free multi-unit residential buildings, and also provides materials on smoking cessation that landlords can share with tenants. To date, Healthy High-Rises has 14 buildings (2,700 units) participating in the program.

Other Big Payoffs
In addition to cost savings (Kenbar saves $500 per unit due to the elimination of extra painting and cleaning after a tenant leaves), the company is also seeing less tenant turnover. “In the apartments adjacent to where a smoker lived, we were seeing turnover more frequently,” says Yon. “We’re experiencing less turnover now.”

Non-smoking buildings may also see insurance savings. One Sacramento insurance firm offers discounts on non-smoking insurance policies; for a 100-unit apartment complex with $13.5 million in building coverage, a building owner saves nearly 10 percent per year ($25,537 vs. $28,348) on annual premiums. Other insurance companies across the country offer smoke-free discounts on annual premiums as well, according to Orr, and that trend will continue to grow.

Fire risk is reduced as a result of smoke-free policies as well, along with potential for legal liability due to non-smoking tenants’ exposure to second-hand smoke. Landlords also use their policies as a marketing tactic when targeting prospective tenants who are in search of healthy, smoke-free living options.

“Given what we know about second-hand smoke, I don’t think people living in multi-family housing will be able to smoke in the future,” says Yon. “This is just the first step.”

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