Smoking foes bring the fight to apartment buildings
Seattle Times staff reporter
A year after a statewide smoking ban took effect at workplaces, restaurants, bars and other public places, a new battlefield over secondhand smoke is emerging: apartment buildings.
Spurred on by nonsmoking tenants and public-health leaders, more private landlords are considering restricting smoking inside their rental units. And local public-housing agencies are also looking at banning smoking in the units of some buildings.
Since the ban took effect, people have gotten used to going out in the community and not being exposed to secondhand smoke, and that's prompted some to ask, "Why do I have to take it in my home?" says Roger Valdez, manager of the tobacco-prevention program for Public Health — Seattle & King County, which enforces the smoking ban here.
"We've been surprised by the increased level of interest to make their apartments smoke-free," he said.
A year ago last month, the voter-approved Initiative 901 took effect. It prohibits smoking in work settings and public places — from offices to bowling alleys — and within 25 feet of their front doors, or a "reasonable" distance, to keep smoke from wafting indoors.
Compliance has gone well, according to the health department. The first month, the department received 168 complaints and found 16 violations. A year later, the numbers were down last month to 18 complaints, with the department finding just one violation.
"When you think of the thousands of businesses in King County, everyone did what they were supposed to do," Valdez said. "What we've heard now is about people smoking in condos and apartment units."
While the state ban prohibits smoking in the common areas of private apartment buildings, such as hallways, community rooms and libraries, residents may smoke inside their units unless the landlord prohibits it.
But smoke from one unit can seep through ventilation shafts and doorways into other units, and the ban has emboldened some nonsmoking tenants to complain about that to their landlords.
"Some landlords are dealing with the issue by banning smoking entirely in their buildings to avoid being stuck in the middle," said Seattle attorney Chris Benis, who advises landlords for the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound.
In the past year, he says, he has received more calls from landlords asking what legal steps they must take to convert their buildings to being smoke-free. Valdez said the health department supports such voluntary efforts, but is not advocating for an expansion of the smoking ban to include apartment units.
Perhaps nowhere is the issue more controversial than in public housing, where many residents — smokers and nonsmokers alike — have few housing options.
"You have some people who say, 'My apartment is my castle. I should be able to smoke whenever I want,' and other people say, 'Yeah, but your smoke is helping to kill me,' " said Terry McLlarky, a resident of Casa Juanita apartments in Kirkland, which is operated by the King County Housing Authority.
McLlarky, who smoked for 40 years before quitting in 2002, is serving on a residents committee that advises the authority on their concerns. Even before the smoking ban went into effect, smoking was not allowed in the common areas of public housing.
Last summer, to find out what public-housing residents had to say about secondhand smoke, the health department and the Group Health Community Foundation, an affiliate of Group Health Cooperative, surveyed 508 households in properties run by the housing authority.
Just over 300 households responded. Most were nonsmoking, with 84 percent reporting they don't allow smoking inside their units. Nearly three-quarters supported rules that prohibit smoking inside apartments.
This week, the housing authority plans to distribute a second survey targeted at elderly and disabled apartment residents. At the end of the month, the committee McLlarky serves on plans to discuss the issue.
The committee's last meeting on the issue in September was explosive. "I don't see any immediate meeting of the minds," he says.
Indoor smoking comes with a higher risk of fires, litter and increased maintenance costs when smokers move out, authority spokeswoman Rhonda Rosenberg said.
After engaging residents in discussions over the next year, the authority probably will establish limits on smoking in some apartments, Rosenberg said. "It's a very delicate dance. It's not as obvious as it would seem."
In July 2003, the Seattle Housing Authority opened its first and only smoke-free property, the Tri-Court, an 86-unit development in North Seattle. The building had been remodeled and smokers who lived there were moved to other properties at the authority's expense.
Virginia Felton, the authority's spokeswoman, said the Tri-Court project came about because many residents with asthma, emphysema and other respiratory problems were asking for a smoke-free building.
This year the authority plans to evaluate whether to expand the smoke-free policy to another building, she said.
Tri-Court resident Susan Vanbuskirk, 58, is allergic to smoke and appreciates living in a smoke-free building, but said compliance isn't perfect. Sometimes in the evening, when she's watching TV, she detects whiffs of cigarette smoke coming from somewhere on her floor.
"I used to smoke, so I know what it smells like," she said.
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or email@example.com
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