Will Apartment Smoking Ban Turn Property Managers into the Smoke Police?
Cities like San Diego are proposing that nuisance ordinances be adopted to curb secondhand smoke at apartment communities. Property Management Insider takes a two-part look at this growing topic in the apartment industry. Today, we examine why some industry association officials fear that property managers will have to enforce complaints and risk losing residents.
Most multifamily housing owners will agree that their management staffs have too much on their plate already with juggling resident and property needs. And if some cities get their wishes, the role of a property manager could also include being a traffic cop whether the owner likes it or not.
Proposed ordinances that ban smoking at apartment complexes or cite smokers for creating public nuisances through secondhand smoke and put the burden of enforcement on the property’s shoulders have apartment association officials on guard.
Officials in San Diego are closely watching a proposed city ordinance that, if passed, would put more onuses on property owners and managers to enforce violations that could ultimately wind up in court.
The ordinance would mandate enforcement by the property if a resident or guest is fingered for creating a secondhand smoke nuisance, regardless of whether the property elects to be smoke free.
Once a written complaint is received, the property is required to serve verbal and/or written notices to the offender. The process could escalate not only to eviction but civil action and include the District Attorney.
Association officials are not sure whether the ordinance, which is expected to be vetted this summer, is better than the first draft issued earlier this year that proposed to require all apartments within the city limits to be smoke free, regardless of the owner’s preference.
Images of a staff member donning a blue uniform and sash, with ticket book in hand, looking for offenders come to the minds of some association leaders. And that’s not good.
“Obviously, we oppose an all-out ban for various reasons, but this just puts the burden on the owners and managers,” says Molly Kirkland, San Diego County Apartment Association Director of Public Affairs. “It really is placing the enforcement burden on the property owner and manager to be the smoking police, and we don’t like that.”
The city mandate follows on the heels of the passage earlier this year of Senate Bill 332, which gives California landlords the option to prohibit smoking anywhere on their properties. And the flame is burning outside the Golden State with similar efforts across the nation, including Texas and New York.
Apartment owners aren’t opposed to smoking restrictions, Kirkland says, but having to enforce an ordinance based on complaint without actually seeing a violation doesn’t wash
“It assumes the (violator) is guilty rather than having some kind of due process where the manager can go and investigate and see if it’s a legitimate claim or not. It’s not very fair.”
Hotbed on Smoke-Free Initiatives
California has been a frontrunner in recent years on many secondhand smoke initiatives in passing ordinances that limit smoking in certain areas.
Senate Bill 332, which went into effect January 1, essentially rubber-stamped a growing choice among cities and communities to create smoke-free living environments and enables apartments to conform. The bill authorizes a landlord of a resident dwelling unit to prohibit the smoking of tobacco products on the property, “in a dwelling unit, in another interior or exterior area, or on the premises on which the dwelling unit is located.”
As of November 2011, there were 23 jurisdictions in California that had adopted ordinances prohibiting smoking within a certain percentage of units at multifamily housing properties, according to the Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing.
Starting this month, a Santa Barbara-based property management company imposed a smoking ban on 2,000 California apartments, informing new residents that they may no longer smoke in their units while giving residents who moved in earlier until the end of the year to comply with the new restrictions.
One of the most recent cities to get on board is San Jose, which passed an ordinance in May that prohibits smoking in enclosed public areas at multifamily dwellings. Also, citing the ill effects of secondhand smoke, Marin County officials passed an ordinance banning smoking in apartment and condominium complexes in unincorporated areas. The law will be enforced by county health officials and violators face a fine of $100 and five days of community service. A second violation generates a $300 fine and 10 days of service, and a third violation within one year, $700 and 15 days of service.
For property owners, having a choice to offer a smoke-free apartment living experience is the key, says Eric Wiegers, California Apartment Association Senior Vice President of Communications.
“The bill brings a measure of certainty to the debate,” he said. “There are a lot of cities that are going ahead and doing it any way, but this bill put it on record that there is now a state statute that says, ‘Go ahead if you want to.’”
While property owners nationwide are enjoying a spike in higher rents and demand is exceeding capacity, resident retention is still as important as ever. The last thing property owners want to be forced to do is to shove out a good, long-term resident for creating a nuisance with smoke while sitting outside on the balcony or lounging at the pool.
Kirkland fears that apartment-rich urban centers like San Diego could lose residents to smaller communities if bans or smoking nuisance laws catch on. What’s detrimental to the property owner could also have an adverse effect on the city.
“I think that’s why we were concerned with the ban initially because surrounding the big cities are a bunch of smaller ones, and if San Diego were to enact a ban, what’s to keep somebody from just moving into a nearby city,” she said. “And now (San Diego) has lost a resident and the property owner has lost a good tenant and now they have to pay money to fill that unit again.
“There is an economic impact not only for the property owner but to a certain extent for the city.”
Tomorrow, Property Management Insider looks deeper into the growing debate and whether a smoke-free apartment community can be perceived as a marketable amenity.