Lawrence health advocates promoting smoke-free housing

Naor Miscia-Aziz doesn’t take well to tobacco smoke. It makes her nauseous, causes her head to ache, gives her asthma attacks.

So when the neighbors at her Lawrence apartment complex smoke, she knows it. And smoke they do.

“The smoke is just nonstop, it’s 24-7,” she said. “It has stained my bathroom floor and kitchen floor. I can smell it in everything — it doesn’t matter if the window is open or closed. It comes through the vents, it comes up the drains.”

But there’s nothing to stop her fellow tenants from doing this. The city of Lawrence has no ban on smoking in multi-unit housing complexes. While some rental properties restrict smoking, they make up a small percentage of the total rental units in Lawrence.

The American Lung Association is advocating for smoke-free housing nationwide, saying that cancer-causing secondhand smoke can travel through doorways, cracks in walls, ventilation systems, electrical lines and plumbing. Locally, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department has been running a public education campaign to let residents know about their options for smoke-free housing.

Forty-eight of 71 local property managers surveyed by the health department had some of kind of smoking policy in place. Of those, 19 restricted smoking inside the dwelling unit. A handful even ban smoking on patios and decks. As municipalities across the country outlaw smoking in multi-unit housing complexes, situations like Miscia-Aziz’s are becoming increasingly rare.

“As an industry, large housing complexes are becoming more inclined to ban smoking, as it protects against liability from nonsmokers with health issues,” said Charlie Bryan, community health planner with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. “They also know there’s a market demand for smoke-free housing. And it saves them money, as it costs less to turn over a property if it was inhabited by a nonsmoker, and reduces the risk of fire hazard.”

Some landlords proactive

Lawrence-based Gage Management, for instance, decided to ban smoking in its rental units starting Aug. 1 after receiving complaints about smoke damage from residents who could smell smoke coming from adjoining apartments, owner David Gage said.

“All housing at Cherry Hill Properties is smoke free. We do not allow smoking inside the buildings and units.  It is written into our lease,” property manager Bill Schulteis said. “Overall it has been extremely well-received. Tenants that do smoke don’t seem to mind smoking outside.”

Sally Burns, owner of Lawrence rental-locator firm the Housing Hawk, said she doesn’t get many requests for smoke-free housing because most people assume that it’s implicit these days.

“All of our properties are smoke-free and we do have that in our lease agreement,” said Becca Koester, a property manager for Hawker and Varsity House apartments. “I don’t get many questions from prospective tenants — I think people assume things will be smoke-free nowadays.”

Even rental complexes that ban smoking can’t guarantee that units will be smoke-free, as tenants may violate the agreement. So the properties include a passage in their lease agreements that prevents from being liable if that does happen.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority banned smoking in its units in 2011 after a smoker who used an oxygen tank started a fire in an apartment at Babcock Place.

“We’ve had no evictions result from it,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of the housing authority, which owns 369 public-housing units. “If we suspect someone’s smoking, we start with a gentle reminder. The enforcement gets more stiff from there. We’ve sent out warning letters, but we haven’t had to evict anyone.”

The city of Lawrence has never considered a smoking ban in multi-unit housing complexes, said City Manager David Corliss, adding that he didn’t recall any commissioners or members of the public ever bringing it up.

Not everyone agrees

Even though he doesn’t smoke, Taylor Shuck, who lives in Lawrence and attends Baker University, doesn’t believe smoking should be banned in multi-unit rentals.

“I think that banning smoking in apartment complexes infringes on all sorts of freedom,” said Shuck, 20. “You can’t tell people not to smoke. They have a right to choose whether or not they want to smoke in their home.”

Local property manager Dick Rector agrees. “I don’t feel obligated to define the personal liberties granted to residents. Their residence, their freedom. I guess it was the Fourth of July recently,” he said.

Ryan Louis, who lives in an apartment complex in west Lawrence, likes to leave his windows open during the summer. Unfortunately, that means he has to breath the secondhand smoke of the person who lives below him. And even though his complex doesn’t explicitly ban smoking, it does have a policy stating that cigarette users may be asked to smoke elsewhere if they are bothering other residents. Louis said he may pursue that option.

“The apartment below me has a right to decide for itself whether or not smoking is OK,” said Louis, a 33-year-old college professor. “But my apartment, suddenly, does not have the right to decide. I don’t get a choice. And that’s unacceptable.”

Unlike others in her situation, Miscia-Aziz can’t exactly move. The 63-year-old has physical disabilities that prevent her from working. Because of her financial situation and age, the Section 8 apartment complex she lives in was her only option.

So she has decided to get involved in the cause locally. She has volunteered to join the tobacco-free working group, part of the local health-and-wellness coalition LiveWell Lawrence, to come up with solutions to reduce smoking in Douglas County. She wants to not only improve the situation for herself but others, who may not know they’re being exposed to secondhand smoke.

“There can be a movement in Lawrence. I believe it needs be a grassroots effort, but I think it could have a tremendous positive impact,” said Miscia-Aziz, whose mother died of a smoking-related illness. “It would be to people, even though they might not even realize it.”