Smoke-Free Apartments: Resident Amenity or Pandora’s Box for Property Managers?
Yesterday, Property Management Insider began the first in a two-part series on proposed nuisance ordinances that some cities are trying to adopt to curb secondhand smoke at apartment communities. Today, we offer more insight into the growing debate and whether a smoke-free apartment community can be perceived as a marketable amenity.
Smoking restrictions in multifamily housing communities aren’t new. For several years, property owners in New York and other cities have designated buildings smoke free without much fanfare. But there has been a recent flurry of government mandates aimed at apartments and other movements to promote smoke-free environments.
The topic has become more than just water cooler fodder, as industry officials are spending hours in their workdays fielding questions and concerns while legislators work to create and pass smoke-free and secondhand smoke nuisance ordinances at apartment complexes. Industry officials fear that property owners will have the burden of enforcement.
In New York, smoke-free living took center stage in April when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who compares smoking to jumping off a bridge, proposed creating written policies for apartments to determine where smoking would or wouldn’t be permitted in an effort to mitigate secondhand smoke.
The same month, Rockland, New York, became one of the state’s first municipalities to pass a law requiring property owners with three or more units to designate smoking and nonsmoking areas. Residents must be provided a copy of the policy and prospective residents must be informed of the policy during lease or rental negotiations. The policy also has to be posted in public areas of the property.
The list goes on, even in the government and public health sectors.
The number of nonsmoking public housing communities, at the encouragement of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is growing. As of January 2011, more than 230 public housing authorities throughout the country had adopted no-smoking policies for some or all of their units, most of them coming since 2005. One of the most recent is the Bristol (Conn.) Housing Authority, which is placing a ban on smoking inside apartments beginning July 1.
In Central Texas, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is creating awareness and promoting smoke-free housing through Live Tobacco-free Austin campaign. The group’s website lists eight Austin-area apartment communities that are either tobacco-free or smoke free.
It was just a matter of time, says Dallas apartment industry consultant Anne Sadovsky, before smoke-free living would become a hot topic. An authority on FHA regulations who hosts numerous seminars and informational sessions each year, Sadovsky said the subject routinely creeps into discussions all the time.
Last month, she fielded questions from concerned property owners and managers at a workshop on FHA regulations hosted by the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas. The meeting was sidetracked for about 20 minutes, she said.
There are no easy answers.
“I have been predicting for 15 years the emerging nonsmoking market and how we will accommodate it,” she said. “Some properties have set aside nonsmoking buildings, which is difficult to do if already occupied with mix of non smokers and smokers.”
She along with others believes that compliance will evolve, even if it takes a few tattlers.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “the nonsmoking residents will quickly report smelling cigarette smoke. They will rat each other out.”
A non-smoker, Sadovsky said don’t look for any discrimination issues from smokers until the Department of Housing and Urban Development deems smokers a protected class, and that’s not likely to happen soon.
“HUD is the one that is going to establish the federal protective classes, and if it doesn’t come through HUD to make it forbidden or protect the non-smokers, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “That’s where it’s going to have to come from. But there are many, many other things ahead of that.”
Yet an apartment’s liability could come into question, says Molly Kirkland, San Diego County Apartment Association Director of Public Affairs. If a property ignores a complaint and, for example, a medical claim comes from a resident claiming to be affected from secondhand smoke, the property could find itself on the defensive.
“It really kind of opens up, and I don’t want to say it, but Pandora’s Box,” she said.
Is Smoke-Free Living a Marketable Amenity?
Sadovksy says smoke-free living is a marketable amenity for apartment communities, although it is difficult to transition existing smoking environments because smoke lingers and sometimes can leave a permanent mark.
A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence, an advocacy group aimed at safeguarding children from cigarettes and secondhand smoke, says nonsmoking residents can smell secondhand smoke in their building’s public area, and almost half smell it in their units.
Tobacco smoke leaves a sticky residue on everything – walls, curtains, ceilings, fixtures, appliances – and the odor and toxins remain unless thoroughly remediated. If a unit is not adequately remediated once a heavy smoker vacates, the unit can still reek of odor. Even units where smoking isn’t present but are next to a smoker can suffer the consequences.
“The reason that you can’t just say that your first floor is not smoking, is because (smoke) comes through electrical outlets,” Sadovsky said. “Trying to say we’re going to have some non-smokers with smokers isn’t going to work.”
Turning over an apartment can get expensive when a unit is occupied by a smoker, according to California Apartment Association (CAA) studies. About three years ago, CAA members participated in a research group at the University of California at Los Angeles and surveyed the damage done to an apartment unit occupied by a heavy smoker.
“The results came back pretty interesting,” said Eric Wiegers, California Apartment Association Senior Vice President of Communications. “To turn the unit, it costs at least 3-4 times more if the person in the unit was a heavy smoker. That’s another reason to maybe prohibit the smoking or going ahead and doing what you want.”
But now that the market is improving and construction is starting again, it’s the perfect time to establish nonsmoking policies prior to leasing up new buildings, especially since secondhand smoke is becoming more noticeable among apartment dwellers, Sadovsky says.
Wiegers and Kirkland agree. One apartment community in Santa Clara that built a new property two years ago and rolled it out as nonsmoking is proof, Wiegers said.
“They have no problem leasing it.”
Smoke-free apartment living is gaining acceptance with property owners, but whether such policies are an amenity and keep units filled is up for debate.
A recent poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute notes that 59 percent of residents polled said they want to live in a building that is smoke free. Also, 53 percent said that it’s not up to the government to tell properties to ban smoking.
Also, according to a 2010 survey of six upstate New York property owners done by Siena College Research Institute, 97 percent of landlords who have smoking policies are satisfied with their decision yet only 31 percent agreed that vacancy rates at their properties had declined since implementing a nonsmoking policy. The biggest benefit, they said, was that fire hazards were reduced.
Of those polled, 73 percent have rules prohibiting smoking inside all rental units while 58 percent prohibit smoking in indoor common areas.
Like Sadovsky, the San Diego County Apartment Association saw the need for smoke-free living coming a few years ago.
Prior to passage this year of California Senate Bill 332, which gives apartment owners the option of designating smoke-free areas, the association worked with a lung association to develop a packet to help property owners transition to smoke-free policies. But a cold-turkey approach with residents who have gotten used to a certain lifestyle in their homes is a touchy subject.
Kirkland says that SB 332 should help transition the mentality and acceptance of smoke-free living, and if property owners want to implement policies and even promote them as amenities, then so be it.
“But at the end of the day,” Kirkland said, “we think that should be up to the property owners.”