For months, Alex Engel had been haunted by the smell of pot smoke wafting up from the basement unit of the condo building in Edgewood where she and her husband rent a one-bedroom unit.
“I’m particularly sensitive to it,” says Engel, 30. “I notice it as soon as I come in the building.”
Like many condo buildings, Engel’s property didn’t ban smoking, and she wasn’t sure what recourse she had.
“I didn’t really want to be the fuddy-duddy neighbor to say anything about it,” she says.
Yet whether you live in a smoking or smoke-free building, you may have rights if you smell smoke in your personal space. Cigarette and other smoke is tough to contain, and a nuisance smell can quickly become a risk to your property and even possibly your health.
In buildings where smoking is allowed, “nuisance provisions” offer residents some protection if they are being bothered by smoke. In December, Engel’s building sent a notice reminding residents that smoke shouldn’t seep from the unit and into other areas. After that, she suspects her neighbors got better sealing around their door.
“They’ve clearly taken steps to make it less of a nuisance,” she says.
A growing number of apartment complexes around the District are going totally smoke-free, and broadening their policies to include all kinds of smoke, including tobacco, marijuana and shisha (the fragrant tobacco smoked in a hookah).
“Secondhand smoke is more than a nuisance,” says Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. “Unlike loud music late at night, secondhand smoke poses a health risk to others in the building.”
In May 2015, Somerset Development started going smoke-free, banning cigarettes, e-cigarettes, shisha and marijuana.
“We were having many residents who were complaining about the smell of smoke or impacts of smoke,” says Alexandra Nassau-Brownstone, director of resident services at Somerset. “Even if you’re trying your best, it’s still impacting neighbors.”
Somerset surveyed residents beforehand and worked with Breathe DC to provide resources and smoking cessation workshops to residents who wanted to quit, to ensure the policy went over better with residents.
“If it’s going to be effective, if it’s going to be good, earn the buy-in from your residents,” says Charles Sutton, project director of the Smoke Free Places, Home Healthy Home project for Breathe DC.
The affordable housing provider POAH Communities, which has properties in D.C. and Maryland, started going smoke-free in 2011 following resident complaints and a rash of fires related to smoking. Their policy currently includes tobacco and marijuana, but not e-cigarettes, which they didn’t feel posed the same threat.
If residents want their building to go smoke-free, Sutton recommends they learn the facts about the health risks, get testimonials from other residents, build consensus, send letters or a signed petition to their building and follow that with a meeting with property managers.
If you smell smoke in a smoke-free building, finding the source can be difficult, but let property management know so they can investigate.
“One of the challenges can be that you can smell smoke but not be able to tell where it’s coming from,” says Nassau-Browstone. “Someone three floors down might be having a severe reaction to it.”
Sutton recommends properties keep a feedback box for smoking complaints. Carbon monoxide tests can give an indication of where smoke is coming from, but “even the testers may not be as effective because the smoke drifts,” Sutton says.
Smoking in a smoke-free building violates the terms of the lease and smokers could face sanctions, but Sutton recommends giving smokers a few chances to get in line.
“One thing we have to recognize is that smoking is an addiction, and addictions are hard to break,” Sutton says.
Of course, not everyone finds smoking to be a nuisance. Traci Watkins, 26, lives in an apartment in Brookland that allows smoking, and is having trouble finding newer apartments that still allow smoking.
“If you are a smoker, cigarettes or otherwise, then that’s limiting your choice,” she says. “In public places where everyone has to breathe the same air, I understand no smoking, but in your apartment residence I think you should be able to make that choice.”
What about e-cigarettes?
Some experts tout e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking in terms of secondhand smoke risk. Instead of smoke, “vaping” emits a water vapor that contains propylene glycol, also used to create artificial smoke or fog. But recent studies have shown the vapor may also contain harmful metals, like chromium and nickel.
Charles Sutton of Breathe DC encourages apartments that are going smoke-free to ban all methods of smoking. “If you [only] ban cigarettes and someone is using e-cigarettes or hookah, that creates so much tension in the community,” he says.
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