Smokers across Santa Monica are on the verge of having one less place to light up: their own homes.
Four of the six city council members present at Tuesday’s public meeting voted in favor of an ordinance that proposed banning smoking for new occupancies of multiunit residences.
The ordinance would also designate all existing residential units in multi-unit properties are designated as either smoking or non-smoking, and that the smoking status of units be disclosed in certain ways.
“The primary purposes of the requirements would be to provide information to those making decisions about where to live, and to decrease exposure to second-hand smoke in residential properties,” City staff said. “Under the proposed law, current occupants of apartments and condominiums would be able to choose either smoking or non-smoking status for their dwelling unit. If a unit is designated non-smoking, then smoking would thereafter be prohibited in that unit. If a unit is vacated (including a smoking unit), the unit’s designation would be non-smoking for the next occupant and thereafter.”
Staff added: “The designate and disclose rule would not apply to properties or units that are already smoke-free.”
The proposed ordinance, which would not apply to single-family residences, also suggested “an explicit prohibition against smoking in all units that are designated non-smoking.”
“All current tenants who choose to designate their units for smoking, or those that remain undesignated, would be exempted,” City staff said. “Thus, all current tenants who smoke would thereby be allowed to continue smoking in their units.”
Nearly two dozen speakers addressed the council during the agenda item – many expressed support of the ordinance. Some speakers who lived in apartment complexes told the council they personally experienced difficulties with asthma because of tenants smoking in neighboring units.
“This ordinance would be a major step forward for the health of Santa Monica residents,” Michael Ong, a UCLA physician, Sunset Park resident, and new father told council members. “The bigger issue is for those places like multiunit housing, particularly apartment buildings or condominiums, the probability of (smoke) spreading is much higher because of all the shared spaces that exist between each of these different types of units or homes.”
Another resident, Willow Evans, applauded the ordinance, but pondered whether it was expansive enough.
“I know the ordinance before you will do a lot of good in this city,” Evans said. “However, what about the people that are suffering now? They would not be helped at all by this ordinance and would have no remedy except to move. It doesn’t help all the neighbors that are breathing smoke right now.”
Council member Bobby Shriver agreed, saying while Santa Monica often liked to consider itself a leader, in this situation, the city was a follower.
“We’re way behind the curve here. I don’t care what anybody else says. Santa Monica likes to think of itself as a leader. It’s a follower here,” Shriver said. “I see Pasadena taking the lead on this. I don’t know why we don’t have a policy where we say all the units are going to be smoke-free. Why isn’t that a good policy?”
Seven California cities already have similar but more expansive ordinances that will eventually apply to all multi-unit residential properties in those respective municipalities.
“We have dillydallied while people have presented these stories to us in the hope that somehow we’ll protect the tenancies of chain smokers over the tenancies of women with children who are coming down here and telling us about their asthmatic conditions,” Shriver continued.
He also said the full disclosure requirement “has to happen or none of this is meaningful.”
One of the two votes against the ordinance, Council member Kevin McKeown said while he is not a fan of smoking and supports controlling the consequences of secondhand smoke, he believes the ordinance, as proposed, is not completely equitable.
“I can accept the idea that all new buildings and even all new tenancies in existing buildings should be non smoking” McKeown said. “And that has am impact on freedom of people to live where they want to, but maybe that’s a trade off we have to make in the interest of public health. We need to keep health important. But I think we have to give a clean deal.
“I’m not comfortable with using second-hand smoke to create second-class citizens. I’m afraid that’s what the document and disclose of this provision is going to do.
McKeown said the full disclosure requirement would effectively mark units occupied by smoking tenants with a scarlet letter – or a “Yellow S.”
He continued that, as an unintended consequence of the ordinance, landlords may be motivated to find creative ways to have tenants of disclosed smoking units evicted in order to prevent future tenants from being scared away.
“It’s not so much that the other tenants will be upset, but if I’m the landlord of an apartment building, and I find as I am showing the property to new tenants, they look at the map, and they say, ‘Oh, you have a vacant unit and it’s next to a big Yellow S, I’m not going to move in there,’ doesn’t have to be a very smart landlord to start figuring out that that long-term tenant who is paying a lower rent because they’re rent controlled is keeping him from getting top market rate on the adjacent apartment,” McKeown, who was joined by Council member Pam O’Connor in dissent, explained.
“What do I do if I’m a landlord? I start to think of creative ways to encourage that person to move. I’ve spent my whole time on the city council trying to make sure that renters in this town don’t get encouraged to move for one reason or another,” he added.
City Hall began regulating smoking in residential areas in 2009, when the council approved an ordinance that prohibited smokers from lighting up in the common area spaces of an apartment complex or condominium. As part of the ban, secondhand smoke victims were permitted to sue smokers.
In 2011, another approved ordinance had banned smoking in any new hotel to be constructed within Santa Monica.
Tuesday evening’s vote now regulates smoking within private residences in multiunit properties. Once the second reading is approved – probably later this month – the new law would officially be on the books 30 days thereafter.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis was the sole council member absent July 10.