How a Spreadsheet Helped an Upper East Side Condo Board Ban Smoking

Habitat, June 17, 2014

Adapted from “Breathe Clean” by Tom Soter (Habitat, June 2014)

Diana Harfouche, former board president of the Upper East Side, Manhattan, condominium The Impala, ended her time as board leader by overseeing the successful transformation of the property into a smoke-free zone. It was an effort that took the strategic skills of an Eisenhower – yet even so might not have succeeded had the initiative not started with the residents themselves.

There were complaints, Harfouche recalls, about secondhand smoke and its “bothersome” smell in adjacent units. “We also had some unit-owners with health issues, such as asthma, [who] were experiencing secondhand smoke from a neighbor.”

Contaminant Containment

But before The Impala, at 404 East 76th Street, would even consider an outright ban, she says, the board had the staff make several attempts to contain the smoke, including by caulking openings in apartments and by installing air filters in some units. Yet as Joseph Grimes of Premiere Properties, the building’s manager, found, “It’s difficult to determine where the fumes are coming from.”

“Our efforts did not stop the seepage of the secondhand smoke,” Harfouche admits.

The board knew it needed a supermajority to amend its bylaws. So Harfouche created a spreadsheet of smokers, nonsmokers and those who would support a ban. Using that spreadsheet, the board carefully targeted the potential voters to be certain it could gain that supermajority.

Going Overseas Isn’t Going Overboard

The condo board called and emailed everyone, including difficult-to-reach foreign investors and unit-owners living abroad. “That was the hurdle, reaching those people. But we were very persistent,” says Harfouche, noting that the board was assisted by a subcommittee of owners.

In the end, the board sent unit-owners information provided by the New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, to educate them about the harmful effects of smoke and “what we saw as a future benefit in terms of property value,” Harfouche says. “We talked about all the efforts that we had made in the past that were unsuccessful and explained that this was the last resort.

“I don’t like telling anyone what they can and can’t do in their home and within their units, so it was a struggle,” she adds. In the end, though, it all comes down to common sense: “A smoker can always exit the building and smoke on the sidewalk – but a person who wants to breathe clean air cannot leave their home and live on the sidewalk.”

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