Condo and co-op boards are feeling growing pressure from their shareholders and unit owners to make their buildings smoke-free.
“They want it now, because they’ve been dealing with breathing secondhand smoke for years,” says Lisa Spitzner, the Manhattan community engagement coordinator at NYC Smoke Free, a nonprofit that works for tobacco control policy, advocacy and education. “We get calls every day from residents, from landlords and from managing agents seeking information about how to do this.”
Spitzner attributes the growing trend to press coverage, outreach, education efforts and information that is easily available online: “People realize that now there is something they can do about this issue.”
The shift to smoke-free residential buildings is happening more quickly than most realize, Spitzner says, pointing to a recent Community Health Survey by the Department of Health. According to results, one-third of all residential buildings in all five boroughs are smoke-free.
Many buildings are opting to go smoke-free voluntarily, especially new construction, Spitzner says. “These developers are protecting their investment and are going smoke-free from the get-go,” she says.
More difficult are older buildings where smoking has been accepted for decades, and many smokers feel that their right to do what they want in their own apartments and their way of life is being infringed upon.
David Kramer, a smoker who lives in a co-op in Chelsea, says he doesn’t smoke in his apartment, but would vote against a smoke-free rule: “Behind your closed doors you should be able to do what you want to do.”
Since September, Spitzner has worked closely with six condo and co-op buildings — four on the West Side and two on the East Side. Currently, she’s assisting five residential buildings who are at different stages of the process.
The first step, if it’s a condo or a coop building, is usually a meeting with the building’s board of directors, and if it’s a rental building, with the landlord or management company.
“We talk about what’s going on in the building, and if they decide they want to pursue this avenue of going smoke-free, we sit down discuss how it works,” Spitzner says. She speaks to the housing groups about the benefits and the technical aspects of going smoke-free, including how to change their bylaws or leases and what they need to do to educate residents.
There are usually multiple meetings with each building, she says, and she’s available to the buildings for free for as long as they request her help.
Spitzner says each resident who get in contact with her office — whether it’s a mother living with her child, or an elderly person, or someone who just moved in — recounts reaching out to their landlords. “These residents are tired of being exposed to a dangerous, unhealthy toxic substance in their own home, which is the one place where they feel they should have control over their health,” Spitzner says.
At 166 East 35th St., a board member, Jimmy J. Stewart, says “we took seriously” complaints from a resident who had to leave her apartment throughout the day because of secondhand smoke. But some tenants were hesitant to make a change, he says. They worried “about property values, and how the policy would be regulated, and wanted to know if there would be penalties.”
Justin “Bud” Clayton of Pride Management, which manages 35 residential buildings around the city, put Stewart in touch with NYC Smoke-Free. “I think it’s the wave of the future,” says Clayton, who recommended a second building of his on the East Side to the non-profit.
It can’t be soon enough for people who breathe in secondhand smoke, but the process can take up to a year, depending on how fast the housing groups are willing to work. According to Spitzner, buildings usually require a 67 percent majority vote in support of the policy.
NYC Smoke Free doesn’t advocate technical fixes, like sealing walls or finding ways to remediate; they advocate “complete smoke-free.” “For us the science and research backs this,” Spitzner says.
Some buildings might try to create smoking areas outside, if they have the grounds to do so, and some will have a longer implementation time. “They vary here and there,” Spitzner says, “but for NYC Smoke Free, the message is that science is here, and the evidence is here that secondhand smoke in the home is bad for your health, and the only way to get rid of that is completely eliminating smoke.”