When Karen Cartagena steps out of the elevator onto the seventh floor of the YWCA on Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street, she sees a bulletin board with a notice warning her that air fresheners might cause respiratory problems.
Cartagena is more concerned about the scent of stale cigarette smoke that lingers in the hallway. She heads to her room, but the odor doesn’t stop at her door. Inside, the air is thick with the scent of tobacco, which also permeates her clothes.
For Cartagena, who quit smoking nearly a year ago and is now one of only a handful of nonsmokers on her floor, the cigarette smell is a daily frustration.
“It’s oppressive,” she said. “It’s always on my mind when I come in.”
She fears the stench of tobacco could keep her from getting work.
“I’m in the process of interviewing for jobs,” she said, “and I’m always self-conscious about my clothing.”
By now, residents of Washington are used to the statewide ban on smoking in public places. Things are more complicated when it comes to regulating smoking in subsidized, transitional and low-income, multi-unit housing. Residents there have fewer housing options and often face more pressing life challenges. They’re also more likely than the general population to be smokers.
As a result, there’s no consensus on how best to regulate smoking in low-income housing.
“From a tenants’ rights standpoint, you want folks to be living in healthy homes, but you don’t want to give property owners so much leverage that you’re creating insecurity in their housing,” said Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State. “It doesn’t do that smoker any good if they end up homeless.”
A 2006 Surgeon General’s report found that exposure to secondhand smoke significantly increases risk for cardiovascular and lung disease, causing nearly 50,000 premature deaths annually among adults. The conclusions fueled a nationwide push for smoke-free public spaces like restaurants, bars and workplaces.
The effort has since expanded to college campuses and, recently, multi-unit housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a memo in 2012 that strongly encouraged affordable multifamily housing owners, managers and public housing authorities to adopt no-smoking policies.
Some cities and counties have taken matters into their own hands. In California, several jurisdictions have adopted ordinances that prohibit smoking in a certain percentage of units.
In 2010 a Tacoma group attempted to classify secondhand smoke in multi-unit housing as a “nuisance” in landlord-tenant law.
Currently, housing agencies in King County can determine their own smoking policies for private units, but Public Health-Seattle & King County offers funding and support for multi-unit housing agencies that want to go smoke-free.
“It’s been a priority of ours for a while now,” said Scott Neal, manager for the county’s tobacco prevention program. “Everyone deserves a right to clean air within their own home.”
Health isn’t the only reason landlords opt for nonsmoking units: Turning over a unit previously occupied by a smoker can be much more expensive.
Housing agencies in King County also faced complaints and even lawsuits from tenants with respiratory problems like asthma and allergies.
In 2011, nine King County housing providers went smoke-free, including Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and King County Housing Authority. The change affected 9,000 units.
Not all agencies in King County have chosen to go smoke-free. Some agencies allow smoking but try to mitigate the smoke with various strategies, while some have designated smoking and nonsmoking floors or buildings.
Still others opt for a less restrictive stance on smoking in an effort to address more urgent concerns.
Agencies that are part of a safety net for disadvantaged populations fear that enforcing a strict nonsmoking policy could mean putting people on the street for something that isn’t the most looming threat to health or livelihood. For example, when someone who has just stopped using meth continues to smoke, health care providers often view it as the lesser of two evils.
Plymouth Housing Group, which provides permanent housing and support to the chronically homeless, employs a “housing first” approach that says people need a stable home before they can turn their attention to other areas of life, such as quitting smoking.
“We want to avoid potential barriers to getting people through the door. For this reason Plymouth allows smoking in tenants’ apartments,” said Andrea Owner, director of property management. “The people we serve have given up a lot in their lives.”
Cigarette smoking is also more common among those who live below the poverty level, which means managers of low-income units are sometimes working with a larger population of smokers.
“It’s a tough issue to tackle because you don’t want to put the property owner in a position to feel like every problem looks like a nail and all you have is a hammer,” Grant said.
Enforcing nonsmoking policies also presents practical challenges, said Julie Kettman, spokesperson for the YWCA.
In dense areas like downtown, the only place for people to smoke is city streets or sidewalks. Remaining 25 feet away from public entrances, as state law dictates, is not always easy and safety becomes an issue.
Managers must also take the needs of disabled tenants into account and accommodate situations where “stepping outside” to smoke might be more than an inconvenience.
An in-between approach
The YWCA, which provides housing and services to women facing poverty, violence and discrimination, has two smoke-free housing locations, the Family Village at Issaquah and Passage Point in Maple Valley.
Its three downtown properties allow smoking, and the Seneca YWCA, where Cartagena lives, has smoking and nonsmoking floors.
On smoking floors, tenants are allowed to smoke in their rooms, with windows open and doors closed, and then must not allow secondhand smoke to drift into common areas or disrupt other residents’ “quiet enjoyment” of their homes.
But policy enforcement is not always smooth.
In February, YWCA management posted a notice to residents explaining that there had been an increasing number of secondhand smoke complaints, reminding them that disturbing other tenants is grounds for eviction and offering tips to “be a better neighbor.”
The advice included using smokeless alternatives, buying an air purifier or asking neighbors if they’ve been bothered by smoking.
All three downtown YWCA locations have received complaints from nonsmoking residents this year, Kettman said.
Cartagena said that she often sees tenants ignoring policies, despite management’s warning that violators will receive a 10-day notice.
According to the Seattle Fire Department, fire units have responded to the Seneca YWCA six times in the past six months because of smoke-triggered alarms.
“I’m not ungrateful — I’m glad I have a roof over my head,” Cartagena said. “But the smoke is just horrible.”
At the same time, Cartagena said she believes that as a nonsmoker, she is in the minority and that a smoke-free policy would displease many of her neighbors.
“Oh, people would be very angry,” she said. “Most feel they are entitled to smoke.”
Making it work
While county agencies can legally prohibit residents from smoking in the building or on the grounds, they can’t deny housing to smokers or require tenants to quit smoking altogether.
Matthew Moore, a staff attorney for ChangeLab Solutions, a California-based nonprofit that works to create healthier communities through law and policy, said that any well-designed smoke-free policy will use eviction as a last resort and have built-in mechanisms to ease the conversion.
“Having nonsmoking multi-unit policies will go a long way toward bringing [secondhand smoking deaths] down,” he said. “That said, any policy does need to be enforced in a fair and humane manner that minimizes the risk of displacing people.”
Low-income housing providers should have a range of options available to respond to residents’ needs, including designated smoking areas, extended phase-in periods for those having difficulty with the change, cessation services and nicotine replacement therapy.
When SHA went smoke-free, staff buffered the policy with a transitional period to help educate residents and connect them with services if they chose to quit smoking, said Michelle Ackermann, spokesperson for SHA.
Management has recently moved toward enforcement and identification of those who continue to smoke, but Ackermann said that no tenants have been evicted for smoking since the change.
This fall, the YWCA housing team plans to address smoking policies for its downtown locations with focus groups and resident discussions, Kettman said.
She added that they will not try to steer the policy in one direction or another before they have engaged with residents and heard their opinions.
“They’re the ones who know what it’s like to live here, and they need to be part of the conversation,” Kettman said.
Scott Neal, of King County’s public health department, said that because smoke-free housing tends to be available in affluent, higher rent areas, the county prioritizes low-income areas when affording funding.
“It didn’t seem fair to us that the lower income folks ... weren’t able to access the very same smoke-free units that people with higher incomes could,” he said.
With a chronic shortage of affordable housing, many agencies have extensive waitlists. On the management side, it isn’t as simple as just shuffling tenants around, considering the extremely limited space.
Cartagena requested to move to a smoke-free floor when there is a vacancy, but there’s no telling when that will happen.
Those applying to subsidized or low-income housing don’t have much choice, she said: “We just take whatever is available.”