Smoke-Free Apartment Buildings Becoming Hot Across City

By Amy Zimmer
DNAInfo, June 4, 2014

MANHATTAN – New Yorkers looking to rent or buy an apartment in a smoke-free building five years ago wouldn’t have had much luck.

There was only one rental listing in 2008 in a building advertised as non-smoking and zero homes for sale in any co-ops or condos that were advertised as smoke-free, according to StreetEasy data compiled for DNAinfo.

Fast forward to 2013 and 2014 and the numbers increased drastically.

Roughly 1,488 rentals, 100 condos and 66 co-ops were listed in smoke-free buildings last year, StreetEasy found. The number of smoke-free listings this year appear to be on pace to surpass those figures, with 1,200 rentals, 71 condos and 34 co-ops listed in the first five months of 2014.

“Smoking bans are – pardon the pun – a very hot issue now, with many buildings considering them or at least asking what would be entailed in trying to adopt one,” attorney Aaron Shmulewitz said.

It makes sense that health-conscious New Yorker homebuyers would want smoke-free buildings, he said.

“The overwhelming majority of co-op and condo constituents grew up in a world without having to smell cigarette smoke, so actually smelling one neighbor’s smoke odors now triggers immediate shock, objection and revulsion,” Shmulewitz said.

Rentals tend to have an easier time going smoke-free, since management companies set the rules. Some of the city’s biggest landlords are now implementing smoking bans, including Equity Residential and Related Companies, which has smoke-free rentals but lets its condo boards set their own policies.

For most co-ops and condos, a “super majority” – usually at least 67 percent – of owners must approve smoke-free rules, often requiring board members to mount campaigns to convince their neighbors, lawyers explained. As high-profile buildings like the 647-unit Zeckendorf Towers at Union Square and the Richard Meier-designed glass condo tower One Grand Army Plaza have banned smoking inside, others have followed.

Some homeowners worry a ban could limit their potential pool of buyers, but others believe the smoke-free designation might help resale values, since their building could be marketed as a “green” or “clean air” building, Shmulewitz noted.

For Marc A. Haken, a smoker for 58 years who led the recent effort at his Holliswood co-op to ban cigarettes from the building’s roughly 300 units, going smoke-free at Hilltop Village Cooperative No. 4 was a no-brainer: the co-op board president went through two packs a day before being diagnosed with lung cancer.

“Smoke kills,” said the 71-year-old retired teacher, who started smoking at 13 and puffed his last cigarette two years ago, the night before his first surgery.

Secondhand smoke can travel between apartments and floors, according to the advocacy group NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. In some apartment buildings, up to 65 percent of the air is shared between units, the group said.

“When one person smokes, the whole building smokes,” coalition executive director Sheelah Feinberg said. “Secondhand smoke permeates walls and crevices in multi-unit buildings and poses a significant health threat.”

Smoke-free buildings cost less to maintain and reduce the risk of fire, she added.
More boards from across the city have been reaching out to Feinberg’s organization, which gets at least 20 calls a month from buildings asking about smoke-free housing.

“It’s not just boards on the Upper East and West sides,” she noted. “It’s also affordable housing – people looking at it from a health equity point of view.”

The nonprofit South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. – or SoBRO – runs four smoke-free affordable housing complexes with 242 units and has 12 more with 211 units underway.

“The main reason [to ban smoking indoors] was for health improvement, not only throughout the building but for the enhancement of the neighborhood,” explained Donna Davis of SoBRO. “Several children, as well as adults, are dealing with asthma and other health-related issues.”
The maintenance cost savings was also a factor, she added.

Tenants who violate the policy – and there have been a few – are “put on notice” and after three memos are “placed in legal for non-compliance,” Davis said. The residents usually comply after that, she said, noting that no one has had to go to court.

Dunn Development – whose 213 units in the mixed-income rental buildings at Navy Green, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard were smoke-free since opening two years ago – is now exploring how to apply the same policy to the 99-unit condo it just broke ground for at the site.

Though it’s more complicated to make condos smoke-free than to make rentals smoke-free, the company’s president Martin Dunn was inclined to do it.

“We think it will attract more buyers than it would discourage,” he said.

Secondhand smoke tends to be a bigger problem in newer construction than in pre-war buildings, which generally have better insulation and shafts since apartment lines tend to be more uniform, said lawyer Steven Sladkus.

Sometimes there are quick fixes, like plugging outlets to seal gaps between electrical plates and walls or asking smokers to get air purifiers, he said.

“There are little tricks of the trade that go far in addressing the problem,” Sladkus said. “[A ban] is a big step to take and it usually takes a big problem to prompt the board to do something like this. You’re essentially telling somebody what they can or can’t do in their apartment, and a lot of people feel strongly about the restriction of liberties.”

That said, he didn’t believe smokers would fare well in court for violating a building’s rules, since smokers don’t have “protected class” legal status.

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