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To Smoke or Not to Smoke – Clearing the Air

Jun 13, 2011 | Archive, Blog, Text Only Article | 0 comments

A potential source of conflict between condominium homeowners is differing positions on “freedom to smoke” vs. “freedom from smoke” inside individual homes.  A Washington condominium association found out the hard way that multiple unit buildings – especially older ones – make this a complex issue to deal with.  In such buildings, it’s often difficult to contain cigarette smoke within a smoker’s unit, no matter how conscientious a smoker is about trying to do so.  Ventilation experts say that in many older buildings there’s almost no way to accurately predict where cigarette smoke from one unit will come to rest.   When it comes to rest in unwelcome places, conflicts can result.

That was certainly the case for the Admiralty House Condominium Association in Edmonds, WA.  Its building was built in 1967 and converted to a condominium in 2007, and does not handle 2nd hand smoke well.  Its Board of Directors got involved when there were complaints of cigarette smoke in the hallway and building lobby, both located on the same floor as a new tenant who smoked.  And, one non-smoking owner whose unit was 1 floor below and on the opposite end of the building from the new smoker complained that her unit had become unlivable for her.  That was because the smoke entering her unit aggravated her respiratory condition, making breathing very difficult for her.  Even adding more caulking and insulation in an effort to keep smoke out of her unit did not help.  While the smoker only smoked inside her unit (as allowed by the Declaration) and used an exhaust fan and air filter to help contain the smoke, the smoke nevertheless ended up infiltrating the non-smoker’s unit and common areas of the building.   So here’s how one Board worked to solve the conflict.

The board first acted by forming a volunteer committee consisting of smokers and non-smokers, to explore possible solutions.  In the meantime, the smoker and the owner of the unit she was renting both took additional steps aimed at containing the smoke.  But, to everyone’s frustration, those actions unfortunately did not produce acceptable results.  It soon became apparent to the Board that the only reasonable solution was to convert the building to a smoke-free environment.  Some of the things the Board learned, leading it to that conclusion were:

  • Research has confirmed 2nd hand smoke to be noxious and hazardous to the health of all non-smokers (actually, the Board already knew this);
  • Smoking is not a constitutionally protected right, and smokers are not a protected class under the laws.  The Association’s governing documents allowed smoking inside an owner’s unit, but not if that activity bothered others inside their units or the common areas.
  • Polls have shown that more than 85% of people, including most smokers, prefer to live in a smoke-free home.  Many smokers do not smoke inside their homes, with the percentage who still do having dropped by over 60% since the year 2000.
  • Property re-sale values are higher, and cleaning costs to get a home ready to sale are lower, for homes that have been smoke-free.
  • Smoke free buildings are safer from fires, and some insurance companies provide additional discounts on homeowners insurance for such buildings and the homes inside them.
  • The Federal Fair Housing Law requires the Association to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities (such as breathing difficulties caused by a medical condition), when asked to do so.  In this case, there was no request for an accommodation.
  • The most reasonable accommodation at Admiralty House, would have been to eliminate smoking in the building.  All other reasonable options would have cost much more and taken much longer.

With the decision having been made to propose an amendment to the Declaration to make the building a smoke-free environment, the Board planned for how to best go about passing such an amendment.  An initial straw poll showed only 55% of Association unit owners were in favor of such a change.  Most of the rest weren’t sure they approved of such a change.  Multiple attorneys told the Board that it would take 67% of the votes to amend the declaration.  But some said obtaining 90% in favor would make the amendment much less likely to be contested.  So the Board recognized it had its work cut out for it.  Thus began an educational campaign to convince at least 35% more of the owners that an amendment was the best and least expensive solution for Admiralty House.

  • Meetings were held with groups of owners to explain what the Board was proposing, and why – and to allow all to share their thoughts on the subject and debate with each other, rather than with the board;
  • Individual meetings were held with those who weren’t already in favor (including all who were undecided), to determine their objections and to make sure they were making an informed decision.  The most often heard comments from the undecided owners (none of whom were smokers) went something like “I don’t think I should be able to tell someone they can’t smoke in their own home”.  When the articles and information the board had gathered were shared with them, all but a few ultimately swung in favor of the amendment, agreeing that a smoke-free building was best for all occupants.
  • Including in the amendment a provision for designated smoking areas, allowed the conversion to a smoke-free building to be done in such a way that smokers could still be accommodated on the property.  That helped sway some of the undecided voters.
  • The educational emphasis was on making sure everyone understood the smoke-free benefits from the standpoints of health, safety, property value, re-sale potential, and lowest costs to achieve a solution that would work for the entire group, without completely eliminating the ability for smokers to smoke on site.
  • The final undecided votes that were changed to “yes” votes came as a gesture to show that the community was strongly unified in the decision, and to minimize the potential for costly litigation in the event anyone contested whether an inadequate percentage was obtained to pass the amendment.  These final votes likely would not have flipped to yes had it not been for a strong sense of community that was present at Admiralty House.

In the end, the smoke-free amendment was passed on a vote of 93% in favor.  Conflict ended!  For its efforts to convert to a smoke-free building, the Association was recently recognized by the Snohomish County Health District as the recipient of the District’s first ever “Healthy House” award.  But the real benefit is the building’s occupants have been appreciating the smoke-free living environment.  The sign on the building’s front door says it all:  “Proud to be a healthy and smoke-free building”!

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