Advocates want to snuff out smoking in rental housing

A growing movement seeks to encourage apartment owners to adopt smoke-free policies

By John R. Roby, | @PSBJRoby 2:53 p.m. EST February 16, 2015

Carol Chatham vividly recalls the spring six years ago when she moved in to her apartment in Vestal.

“When I moved in it was a brand-new building – I was the eighth tenant,” she said. “I was sitting in my living room in April with the window open, and all I could smell was cigarette smoke.”

It was a smell Chatham, now 71, thought she had put behind her for good a decade before, when she managed to beat smoking after a lifetime. In her new housing, she could not escape it.

“In my apartment, I have one [smoker] under me and one on each side,” she said. “I can’t sit on my deck.”

Concerned about her own health – she attributes two heart attacks to both her habit and years of working in smoke-filled environments – as well as that of other tenants, she became an advocate, reaching out to the Broome County Health Department’s Tobacco Free Broome and Tioga program and its coordinator, Sharon Fischer.

Part of the Tobacco Free program’s work involves educating landlords and building managers on the benefits and legal possibilities of establishing 100 percent smoke-free policies, Fischer said.

There have been successes in Broome County. Last year, the Binghamton Housing Authority prohibited smoking within 25 feet of units in the Saratoga Terrace, Saratoga Heights and Carlisle Apartments buildings, home to more than 1,000 people in 425 units. The S.E.P.P. Group’s senior apartments are smoke-free, as are buildings managed by several independent landlords.

“So much progress has been made in changing opinions among the public and housing managers,” Fischer said. “I would hope that it will be less than 10 years when all our public housing will be smoke-free.”

In working to prevent secondhand smoke exposure in rental housing, Chatham, whose apartment receives support from New York as well as HUD money for housing seniors, became part of a growing nationwide movement.

Liz Williams, a project manager with Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said more and more rental units are becoming 100 percent smoke-free. ANR is a public health nonprofit based in Berkeley, Calif., that advocates for people’s right to breathe smoke-free air.

“We’re seeing these policies being adopted all over the country, largely because residents are speaking up to managers,” she said.

Williams said more than 500 public housing authorities have adopted 100 percent smoke-free policies, as have market-rate housing landlords from individual unit owners to multi-state apartment management companies.

A new approach, she said, is cities and counties prohibiting smoking in multifamily housing. About 40 municipalities, all in California, have done so to date.

Williams said as people become used to smoke-free environments in public places and work spaces, they begin to advocate for smoke-free housing as well.

“People are becoming very frustrated by being in a smoke-free office all day, then having dinner in a smoke-free restaurant, going to a smoke-free club, and then going home and being exposed to secondhand smoke in their residence,” she said.

Yet there is a significant difference between voluntary and mandatory smoke-free policies, said Doug Culkin, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group with 67,000 members representing more than 7.6 million apartment homes throughout the United States and Canada. He praised property owners that have put policies in place based on residents’ demand, but said his group does not support efforts to impose nonsmoking regulations.

“NAA firmly opposes all legislative attempts to mandate smoking bans in privately owned apartment communities,” he said. “Decisions concerning whether smoking should be permitted on private property must ultimately be left to individual property owners.”

The health dangers of secondhand smoke are well-known. According to this month’s edition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vital Signs newsletter, exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke contributes to more than 400 infant and 41,000 adult deaths annually. The problem is especially prevalent in multifamily housing, the report says, where more than 1 in 3 residents nationwide are exposed to secondhand smoke.

The CDC encourages state and local governments to explore ways to eliminate smoking in apartments and public housing units.

What is less well-known is that going smoke-free can be a solid business decision, according to both Fischer and Williams. Smoke-free units are easier to clean, which reduces the turnover time between tenants, and some insurance companies offer reduced rates for smoke-free buildings.

“There are significant cost savings,” Fischer said. “And as time goes on, more people are seeking smoke-free housing. A lot of market-rate housing units advertise that fact now.”

An April 16 seminar aimed at county landlords will include a presentation by Fischer on going smoke-free, along with information on traditional topics such as lead paint and energy savings. Fischer encouraged landlords who are considering a smoke-free policy, as well as tenants who want to learn more, to contact the Tobacco Free Broome and Tioga program.

“Most renters, including smokers, want smoke-free housing, and it supports their efforts to quit,” she said.

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