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Home is latest arena in fight over smoking

Apartment renters raise demand for smoke-free living

Email|Print| Text size + By Staci Semrad
New York Times News Service / November 5, 2007

NEW YORK - Jill and Joanie Shockley just want to breathe clean air in their homes. Neighboring tenants want to smoke in theirs.

The Shockleys are sisters who live down the hall from each other in an apartment complex in a suburb of St. Paul, where tobacco smoke from other units wafts daily into their homes.

"It's frustrating," said Joanie Shockley, 59. "I like to have my grandchildren come over, and I don't like for them to be exposed to people smoking."

The Shockleys are part of a growing movement to restrict smoking in apartments and condominiums that is having some success.

This year, two California cities passed laws restricting smoking inside multiunit residential buildings. In the last 14 months, two large residential real estate companies with apartment complexes in several states banned smoking inside units.

Thousands of smaller apartment complexes across the country have taken similar steps, said Jim Bergman, founder of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project, based in Michigan.

And about 60 public housing authorities across the country have smoke-free policies, compared with less than 10 three years ago, Bergman said.

Health advocacy groups call housing one of the smoke-free movement's final frontiers.

Owners of apartment buildings have largely ignored the issue but are starting to recognize the demand for smoke-free housing, said Bergman, one of the organizers of a meeting of about 75 smoke-free housing advocates from around the country held in October in Minneapolis.

Edward Sweda Jr., senior lawyer at the Tobacco Control Resource Center of Northeastern University's School of Law in Boston, says he has studied the legal issues of secondhand smoke for 28 years and knows of no law in the United States prohibiting residential property owners from banning smoking.

At least 27 lawsuits have been filed since 1991 over smoking in multiunit housing, and judges have often sided with the nonsmoker, Sweda said.

But many in the real estate industry believe that banning smoking in such buildings would be discriminatory and therefore illegal. When asked by residents to enact a smoke-free policy, property managers often say they cannot because of federal fair-housing laws.

In the summer of 2006, First Centrum, based in Virginia, adopted a smoke-free policy for more than 5,000 units at its 46 apartment communities for older residents in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, said Robert Couch, president of the company's management division.

Over the last seven years, Guardian Management, based in Oregon, has banned smoking in units at five properties, and in August extended that policy to 8,000 rental units at 100 properties in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, said Tom Brenneke, the company president.

"It was an easy decision," Brenneke said. He said Guardian was motivated primarily by health and financial considerations, and pointed out that a smoker's apartment cost $1,500 to clean after it is vacated, compared with $400 for a nonsmoker's.

Researchers around the country have analyzed whether smoke can be contained in various kinds of apartment buildings and found that the percentage of shared air generally ranges from 10 to 50 percent, with upper floors most at risk, said James Repace, who conducts research on secondhand smoke with the Tufts University School of Medicine.

"There is a tremendous unmet demand for smoke-free housing in America," he said, "and it boggles my mind that the real estate industry has not recognized that and tried to profit from it."

Though smoke-free housing legislation is hailed by many nonsmokers as a step toward healthy living, it has drawn opposition from smokers and real estate groups. Smoke-free housing laws are "an erosion of private property rights," said Mark Ingrao, vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association.

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