Smoking in Multifamily Housing: Tobacco, Marijuana, or E-Cigs – They All Stink!

Written by Apartment Management Magazine on . Posted in Blog

By Daniel Yukelson, Executive Director

I thought I would address the subject of smoking from the perspective of a rental housing provider.  No offense!  If you are a smoker and enjoy it, more power to you.  Merely keep your smoking self away from our properties…as in way far away.

The “bottom line” on smoking from the perspective of rental housing providers is we just don’t want smoking anywhere in or at our rental properties because of the damage it causes to our rental units, the increased turnover costs, and also because of the many complaints we will surely get from non-smoking renters, particularly renters that have young children or health issues making them extra sensitive to second-hand smoke.  Face it, we don’t want the “stink” around bothering other people and harming our otherwise healthy and quiet existence. 

However, at the same time we do not want smoking at our rental properties, there are those rental housing providers that are sometimes reluctant about no-smoking policies being imposed because of concerns about being responsible for enforcement.  I get that.

Yet, most rental housing providers are concerned and know that smoking from cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, and E-cigs (sadly, today even from methamphetamine or better known as “meth”) are a continuing problem for both residents and owners of multifamily rental properties despite regulations that have been put into place over the past decade.  From an owner’s perspective, as I mentioned, smoking, whether it is firsthand, secondhand or thirdhand, not only causes complaints among neighbors and health risks to renters and guests, but it also causes increased maintenance and turnover costs when units that contained smokers become vacant.  In fact, long after a smoker vacates a unit, the effects of thirdhand smoke are still present…and, for those of you not familiar with the concept of third-hand smoke, which I only recently learned about, it is the residual nicotine and other chemical residue caused by smoking left over on indoor surfaces by tobacco, marijuana, or E-cig smoke.  Kind of disgusting when you think about it.

Thirdhand smoke can often remain in a rental unit for years after a smoker has moved on and can be extremely difficult to clean.  Another problem with third-hand smoke is it is not always easily detected, and thirdhand smoke that remains can often cause adverse health impacts to the next resident (and the one after that, and so on) that moves into your vacant unit…particularly for rental units that had many years of exposure to smoking.

Now let me tell you a bit about a study our Association assisted the University of California, at Los Angeles (UCLA) with.  We participated in a 2019-2020 study of renters and property owners that was conducted by UCLA on behalf of the City of Los Angeles.  This was the first of three smoke-free studies we have participated in, the last two being with a private research company and another with UCLA’s cross-town rival, the University of Southern California, both of which were conducting their surveys on behalf of the County of Los Angeles’ Department of health.  The results of these later USC studies are still pending.  But you can be sure, the County of Los Angeles is very interested in smoking within multifamily housing, and I am willing to bet you there will soon be smoking bans imposed in all of the unincorporated areas of the County if not incorporated ones too.  Now, camping illegally and doing illegal narcotics on our streets, sidewalks, and parks will still be permitted somehow, but no smoking regulations are coming our way – and that’s a good thing despite my sarcasm about a homelessness crisis we cannot seem to get ahead of.

Under the UCLA study, they (they as in the “Bruins”) found that nearly 50% of renters had been exposed to unwanted secondhand smoke at one time or another at their homes.  That’s a huge number…UCLA surveyed more than 5,000 renters and about 200 rental property owners (we tried to get more, but many of you were too reluctant to respond – it was difficult to convince you to take the $50 gift cards being offered…missed your chance, sorry). 

Sadly, as we non-smokers know, most smokers do not believe they are hurting anyone or they chose to ignore the adverse health impacts of secondhand smoke drifting into other units through open windows and vents.  The UCLA study also found that:

  • 55% of tenants who live with someone with a chronic disease reported they had been exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes in the past year.
  • 54% of tenants with children reported exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Of those tenants reporting smoke drifting into their homes, 39% came from tobacco, 36% came from marijuana, and 9% from E-cigs.  The balance came from barbeques or fires, or some other unknown source.
  • Also, 74% of renters had reported smoke came from outdoors, 64% reported it came from another unit, and 41% reported that smoke drifted in from both outdoors and another unit.
  • Interestingly, 16% of tenants surveyed reported that they smoked or allowed someone to smoke in their apartment unit.  Now, why would you allow that?!!  It must have been the kids’ friends.

Overwhelmingly, 92% of rental property owners favored smoke-free policies…again, the reason is that smoking damages units, turnover is more costly, and smoking causes tenants to complain about one another.  That being said, housing providers want nothing to do with enforcement of smoke-free policies, and also do not want to be required to perform additional administrative tasks such as providing notices to renters or posting costly signs.  While “no-smoking” may be a provision in their leases, most rental property owners do not want to go so far as to evict a renter for smoking in violation of a lease – which given current regulations today, most tenant protection ordinance make it very difficult to evict a renter for smoking in violation of their lease, and the origin of the smoke may be difficult to prove.  And let’s not forget, evictions are costly and time consuming.  Our hands are tied…basically.  Some jurisdictions, like West Hollywood, outright prohibit evicting a tenant for smoking in violation of that City’s no-smoking at multifamily properties, the West Hollywood property owners have no real enforcement mechanism.

The UCLA study found that 3 out of 5 tenants live in buildings with some form of smoking ban, whether in common areas or individual units. But as I mentioned these policies can be difficult to implement, particularly in rent-controlled jurisdictions.  That is why so many tenants reported to UCLA exposure to smoke in their rental units.  Also, if a tenant who smokes has rented their unit before a no smoking policy was put in place, an owner typically cannot require them to stop unless the smoking ban is subject to local ordinance, particularly in rent-controlled jurisdictions. 

In the absence of a prohibition by local ordinance, landlords can only ask existing tenants to voluntarily refrain from smoking.  I have found the city-wide ban on smoking to be the best way to prohibit smoking in multifamily rental housing because it removes the enforcement obligation from the owner, and renters are more willing to comply when there is a threat of a fine imposed that might be imposed by the city.  From our Association’s perspective, when it comes to smoke-free policies, we are almost always supportive provided the policies relieve our members of significant administrative obligations, excessive costs, and enforcement obligations.

Our ultimate goal is to assist you, our members, with providing safe and affordable housing at a fair return.  Accordingly, policies to protect our residents from the health risks of secondhand and thirdhand smoke in their homes is critical, and policies that ultimately save money so property owners can make a few bucks in the business, is something we like to get behind.

The best smoke-free ordinances are ones that include the establishment of a single smoke-free policy requiring all multiunit housing properties in a local jurisdiction to be 100% smoke-free – as I mentioned, an outright ban on smoking in apartment buildings works.  This is the only way to protect all tenants.  Most owners, as pointed out in the UCLA survey, feel smoking should be banned throughout the entire property and not permitted just in common areas or outdoors on balconies, for example.  Any smoke-free policy must include appropriate and timely policy-enforcement and should never depend on rental property owners who are most often absent from their properties and unable to “catch” a smoker in the act.   In the UCLA study, 82% of owners felt that enforcement was a barrier to imposing a smoke-free policy at their property.  Most owners stated that enforcement by the local jurisdiction was critical to a successful smoke-free policy.

Lastly, it is extremely important that local governments educate both residents and owners about smoke-free policies and provide smokers with access to resources that help people quit smoking in order to aid in the compliance and enforcement process.  The UCLA survey found that many owners were unaware if there was a no smoking provision in place in the local jurisdiction, and the same was true of renters as to whether any no-smoking policy imposed by their landlord or the jurisdiction in which they live covered their property.

As we start the New Year, and we all talk about our New Year’s resolutions, let’s propose a toast to our health and those of our friends, families, and residents.  Maybe someday, we can look to a smoke-free world when it comes to our rental properties.  It is important that all rental housing providers know the issues about smoking and smoke-free policies because that regulatory train is coming around the bend, and if you don’t speak up, the government will speak for you…make your opinions on smoke-free policies count.

Daniel Yukelson is currently the Executive Director of The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA).  As Certified Public Accountant, Yukelson began his career at Ernst & Young, the global accounting firm, and throughout his career has served in senior financial roles principally as Chief Financial Officer for various public, private and start-up companies.  Prior to joining AAGLA, Yukelson served for 15 years as Chief Financial Officer for Premiere Radio Networks, now a subsidiary of I-Heart Media, and for 3 years as Chief Financial Officer for Oasis West Realty, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills where he was involved with the development and construction of the Waldorf.  Mr. Yukelson is a former Public Works Commissioner and Planning Commissioner for the City of Beverly Hills.