Alan is a young man in his 30s, but he has a heart condition, and last year he had heart surgery. His reasonably priced, rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica is surrounded by residents who smoke. Alan is breathing a lot of secondhand smoke and is worried about his health. He spoke to a fair housing organization and the Santa Monica City Attorney. Everyone advised him that there was no remedy except to move. The reason: Under the rent control law, conditions of tenancy cannot be changed during the term of the residency. If a person who smokes is not required in the lease (which is signed at the beginning of tenancy) to refrain from smoking in the unit, the landlord is powerless to make a change, even if the smoke is making another tenant sick.
Marilyn pays a low rent in an 18-unit rent-controlled apartment building. When units adjacent to hers have become vacant, she has asked the apartment owner to require no smoking in those units because she is allergic to tobacco smoke. So far he has not responded to her requests. The newest residents, in fact, are heavy smokers and are home most of the time. Marilyn is having difficulty breathing, and she wonders if her landlord is using tobacco smoke as a strategy to force her to move.
Hotels have had non-smoking and smoking-permitted sections for years with excellent success. In California, hotels were required by a state law passed in 1995 to offer one-third of rooms as non-smoking. Currently, the number of non-smoking rooms in California and nationwide has increased to 65 percent, and some hotels, like the Westin chain and Marriott have become totally non-smoking in all of their guest rooms and outdoor areas. Why has this happened? The answer: patron demand.
Apartment residents also want the choice of “smoking or non-smoking.” Of the 624 respondents in a recent survey in Santa Monica, 95.8 percent of non-tobacco users and 48.7 percent of current tobacco users said they would prefer to live in the smoke-free section of the apartment building if such a thing was available.
Recent state-wide surveys by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research of tenants and apartment owners demonstrate that both owners and tenants are in favor of smoke-free environments, and most apartment owners are willing to set aside as many as 50 percent of their units as non-smoking. Why then hasn’t patron demand resulted in non-smoking sections and even totally smoke-free apartment buildings?
There seems to be a disconnect between landlords and tenants. Most tenants are hesitant to ask for a non-smoking unit and even fail to complain when their neighbor’s tobacco smoke invades their apartment home. Tobacco companies have done an excellent job of convincing us that there is some kind of “right to smoke.”
Most owners are apparently reluctant to create non-smoking sections and buildings for fear that they will be violating fair housing laws. But people who smoke are not a protected group under fair housing laws. In fact, there is no constitutional right or privacy right to smoke in an apartment. Apartment units can legally be designated as non-smoking.
Californians are protected from tobacco smoke in the workplace, and in Santa Monica, parks and even beaches are smoke-free by law. But there are no requirements to protect people from tobacco smoke where they live.
The California Air Resources Board (ARB) has just declared that tobacco smoke is a Toxic Air Contaminant, right up there with diesel exhaust, benzene and arsenic. The list of illnesses caused by tobacco smoke now includes breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. But the ARB only regulates outdoor air. What does it mean then for the health of the community when tobacco smoke is circulating indoors in an apartment building?
If Marilyn and Alan move to other apartments in other buildings, not only will they lose their reasonable rent-controlled rents, it is very possible that the same problem of exposure to drifting tobacco smoke will happen to them again. Isn’t it time to find a way to protect apartment residents from drifting tobacco smoke?
For more information, go to www.smokefreeapartments.org.