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Council Strengthens Existing Smoking Ban; Shows Weak Support for Expanding It to Residential Units

By Jorge Casuso

April 9 -- The City Council Tuesday took initial steps to ban smoking in the common areas of multi-unit residential buildings, but indicated it would likely not extend the ban inside the units themselves.

The hotly debated issue came as the council voted unanimously to strengthen enforcement of its most recent smoking law by making business owners liable who “knowingly or intentionally” allow patrons to smoke in outdoor dining areas. The law will require businesses to prominently post no-smoking signs in those areas.

The council also extended Santa Monica’s smoking ban to all public library grounds and lowered the fines for first-time violations to $100 from $250, putting it in line with other cities that have similar smoking bans.

But the council indicated it would likely do little to ban smoking inside apartment units, despite testimony from dozens of tenants who said they were spending thousands of dollars on air filters, leaving doors open and even being driven from their homes by neighboring chain smokers.

“When we go into people’s private living quarters, where do we stop?” said Mayor Herb Katz. “I think we’ve got to be careful before we start to step on people’s private rights. I can’t support going into someone’s house.”

Council members who belong to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) worried that banning smoking inside residential units could give landlords ammunition to evict long-time tenants, many of whom pay rents far below market rates.

“Smoking tenants could be at risk of losing their homes,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. The City can’t “allow an unfair advantage to a landlord trying to evict a tenant for financial reasons.”

“I’ve always been reluctant,” said Council member Ken Genser. “There’s a lot of incentive on the part of landlords to evict people.”

After making a successful motion directing staff to come back with a smoking ban for common areas, Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom said, “I think this is a pretty big step, and there is some concern about how we move forward.”

Council member Bobby Shriver, who is not a member of the city’s powerful tenants group, was the only one on the dais who expressed support for a possible ban on smoking in apartment units, pointing to the often emotional testimony of rent-control tenants.

“I feel these people have a fairly urgent problem because of the situations they live in,” Shriver said.

Shriver said that tenants being forced to buy air filters and leave their doors open “is nuts.”

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I think we should be tough on that.”

Although Genser expressed reservations about a ban on smoking inside units, he said the testimony pointed to problems that “are sounding more significant and more believable than stories heard at previous meetings.”

The discussion, however, only led to a vaguely worded motion to “explore other options for housing and hold workshops.”

The council’s direction came after testimony from health experts, anti-smoking activists and tenants who said their health is at risk from second-hand smoke.

Some said they have been forced to take extreme measures to escape the smoke that seeps through cracks, travels through ducts and permeates their units.

One woman, who said she would get up at 2. a.m. choking from her neighbor’s second-hand smoke, has been forced to sleep in the living room of her rent-controlled apartment.

Another, a resident of a Community Corporation affordable housing building, said she has developed asthma and sinus problems from the smoke that comes through a vent and has been forced to move in with a friend.

Regina Harcourt said she has developed asthma and spent thousands of dollars on air filters to combat the second-hand smoke coming from a neighboring tenant in her rent control building.

“I really believe I have a right to just breathe,” she said. “I don’t see it as a rent control issue.”

James Lebesque, whose two teenage daughters live with him two weeks out of the month, said he has had to keep the doors open after chain smokers moved into the two units below his rent-control apartment.

“We sent letters to the property manager for two years,” he said. “Now we must open and leave the front door open.”

“I don’t think it’s right that we should suffer in our home,” one of his daughters said.

Lebesque used an industrial standard instrument to measure the pollutants from the second-hand smoke entering his apartment between midnight and 3 a.m. and found high levels of airborne particles.

Joan Waddell, of the local office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in the South Bay, said the experiment proves “that tobacco smoke can move from one unit to another and can be at dangerous levels.”

Ester Schiller, director of Smoke-free Air For Everyone (SAFE), said her group has been receiving calls for help from apartment and condo residents since 1995.

“We used to suggest to people that they move, but for people who live in rent controlled apartments, that’s an impossible suggestion,” Schiller said..

“They don’t want to give up their reasonable rents, they don’t want to breathe the smoke,” she said. “It’s impossible.”

SAFE lists vacancies in smoke free buildings in Santa Monica, but only six of the of 325 apartment owners in the registry have smoke-free buildings, Schiller said.

Schiller suggested that Santa Monica follow the lead of Calabasas, which passed an ordinance that requires 80 percent of residential buildings to be completely smoke-free by 2012.

Those who represent property owners urged the council to move carefully on any smoking ban in residential buildings.

Bill Dawson, a vice president at Sullivan-Dituri Realtors, one of the largest property managers in the city, said such an ordinance could face “potential landmines.”

“Who’s going to enforce this? Who’s going to litigate it?” Dawson said. “I’m worried about the devil in the details.

“Work over the logistics,” Dawson said. “This is all really new. The ordinances haven’t been around long enough to know the pitfalls.”

In addition to directing staff to explore an ordinance banning smoking in common areas of multi-unit residential buildings, the council asked for an ordinance that establishes a tobacco retailer-licensing law for Santa Monica to help assure that minors are not sold cigarettes.

The final version of the ordinance approved Tuesday night making business owners liable for smoking in their establishments is scheduled to go before the council on April 22.

If approved, it would become effective 90 days later on July 21 to coincide with the roll-out of the City’s upcoming public outreach and education campaign. City staff will choose the marketing firm for that job on April 15.

 

“When we go into people’s private living quarters, where do we stop?” Herb Katz.

 

“Smoking tenants could be at risk of losing their homes.” Kevin McKeown

 

“I really believe I have a right to just breathe. I don’t see it as a rent control issue.” Regina Harcourt

 

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