PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Board of Health wants landlords to make their properties smoke free.
The Health Department doesn't have authority to demand landlords adopt smoke-free policies but are rolling out resources to guide landlords on how to do so. The board feels that secondhand smoke is a health concern and inside homes are where that mostly occurs.
"We have had a steady increase of complaint calls from tenants who have issues trying to live with secondhand smoke on their rental property," Health Director Gina Armstrong said, but "our hands are really tied to a degree if we are not seeing violations tied to state housing code."
The city is now looking to Area Health Education Centers and the Public Health Advocacy Institute to help landlords do it themselves. The two groups have held multiple presentations already and are looking to connect with landlords to make the change.
"We know secondhand smoke is bad. People are recognizing that fact but here is an issue where approximately a million folks in Massachusetts are exposed," said Chris Banthin, who heads PHAI's Smoke Free Homes Initiative.
Banthin said secondhand smoke carries a number of health concerns from asthma to lung cancer to sudden infant death syndrome. For those living in multiunit apartment buildings, many of them are exposed to a danger that they have little control over. The smoke from other units can carry through cracks in the walls and the ventilation system and into other units.
"There is no doubt that secondhand smoke, including smoking from another unit, has a detrimental effect," he said.
Particularly, Banthin says lower income residents are the most at risk. He said a quarter of Medicare recipients are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes, 17 percent of those with mental health concerns, and 13 percent of MassHealth participants.
Banthin said the process to turn a rental property into smoke-free is fairly simple by just creating an addendum to lease agreements. He suggests setting a date to go smoke-free, telling residents well ahead of time, and then adding the addendum when the leases are renewed.
He doesn't advise landlords use any grandfathering clauses to allow only a few units to remain smoking while the rest of the building is smoke-free and he advises landlords to give about a six-month notice so they know it is coming too.
If health concerns don't sway a landlord to make such a change, Banthin said in 2010 his organization did a survey and found that most potential tenants want smoke-free living, and are willing to pay a little more for that.
"People want a safe and healthy apartment and they are willing to pay more," Banthin said.
Banthin claims that landlords who go smoke-free have less turnover among tenants, lower maintenance costs, and fewer disputes among tenants. He said 99 percent of landlords who went smoke-free recently believe it was a good decision and 90 percent of landlords who did said it was easy to do.
Banthin said landlords can order no smoking on the property altogether, or create a buffer around the building, or put in a designated smoking area for those tenants who smoke. He was clear in saying the policy isn't "no smokers" but that it is "no smoking." Tenants won't be denied housing because they are smokers -- just not allowed to do it indoors.
Public housing is already moving in that direction. By July 2018, all federally funded public housing authorities will be smoke free. In Pittsfield, all 700 units have already gone that direction and, historically, Stockbridge and Lee were the first two in the state to do that. Banthin thinks that will trickle down to other federally subsidized housing in the future.
But, the gap is in the private market. Banthin said recently a number of apartment buildings in Pittsfield have made the switch.
"There is quite a trend here of property owners going smoke free," Banthin said.
After the ballot initiative passed allowing recreational marijuana, Banthin said he received phone calls from landlords asking if that can be banned from properties. He said there is a provision written into the law allowing landlords to do so, but he recommends that they ban both tobacco and marijuana at the same time.
If tenants break the policy, then they could be subject to eviction. Banthin said he advocates for landlords to work with tenants who aren't obeying the smoke-free rules and provide as much education as possible.
Landlords can use failure to comply with a no-smoking policy as grounds for eviction. In those cases, Banthin suggested landlords build a record of instances and statements from other tenants to make the eviction case in court. Or, they can install technology to monitor for smoke in the building.
So far, he said it seldom has had to come to that. For the most part, "there is a very high level of compliance," he said.
Banthin and the Health Department has been looking for ways to reach out to landlords and encourage them to go smoke-free but it isn't always easy to reach them. They've been giving presentations and are now looking to hand out material connecting landlords with sample lease addendum and the legal process.
"From the public health network, we think this is a really important strategy," Armstrong said.
Joyce Brewer, who runs AHEC's tobacco program, is serving as a local point person to connect anyone interested with the guidance they need.
"I am basically the local resource for questions and materials," she said.
Locally there has been a major push toward anti-smoking programs. In recent years, the Board of Health implemented sweeping changes to the tobacco laws, including raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21 and limiting the number stores that can sell the products.
Board of Health Chairman Jay Green said there is a reason for that heightened focus. He said the city's smoking prevalence is 48 percent higher than the states, the rate of residents smoking while pregnant is 250 times higher than the state, and lung cancer is prevalent 29 percent more than the state average.
"I think those are sobering numbers," Green said.
Eventually, Banthin sees a legislative measure to add smoke free apartments into the housing code. But, that won't be for a while and would likely be driven by more and more communities pushing lawmakers to pass a bill like that, he said.
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