Some renters want Santa Monica to further restrict smoking


For years, Mike Horelick and Nicolina Karlsson endured the cigarette smoke wafting into their tiny Santa Monica courtyard apartment from a neighbor’s patio, even though it aggravated Karlsson’s asthma.

Apartment smoking: A story in the Feb. 3 LATExtra section about a push to ban smoking on apartment balconies and patios in Santa Monica said Belmont is in Santa Clara County. It is in San Mateo County. —

But after the couple made several $100 trips to the emergency room because their infant daughter was gasping for air, they pleaded with the neighbor to stop smoking outdoors, to no avail. Now, contending that secondhand smoke poses a health hazard, they have joined other activists who are pushing the city to snuff out smoking on private balconies and patios in multifamily dwellings.

It’s an effort that puts Santa Monica in sync with a growing number of other California cities and counties that have hit smokers where they live. Yet, in the liberal-leaning beach community, the debate takes on added freight because of the political clout of Santa Monica’s tenants rights advocates, who contend that landlords would welcome an excuse to evict longtime tenants in rent-controlled units.

The fight might come down to whether such a sweeping smoking ban bumps up against the civil rights of renters.

Santa Monica has already outlawed lighting up in public spaces, including beaches and parks, outdoor dining areas, bus stops, ATM lines, farmers markets, the pier and the Third Street Promenade. Last year, over the objections of many rent-control advocates, the city adopted an ordinance banning tobacco smoke in indoor and outdoor common areas of apartment and condo complexes.

But a prohibition on smoking on private patios and balconies marks a line that local politicians seem reluctant to cross for fear of offending the influential Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights group in an election year.

Even without an election, said Councilman Kevin McKeown, the issue is especially potent in Santa Monica, where about 70% of residents are renters.

“Do we even have the legal right to disallow smoking within someone’s home?” McKeown said. “Can we legislate the breeze?”

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has been a political force for 30 years. In the late 1970s, an era of rampant development, many elderly and low- and moderate-income tenants lost their homes as property owners converted apartments to condos. Tenants and neighborhood groups joined forces to support a successful ballot measure to institute rent control and “just cause” evictions.

Further smoking restrictions, they say, would erode renters’ rights.

“You can’t just pull away rights,” said Patricia Hoffman, chairwoman of the rights group. “You can ban smoking in new buildings. You can ban smoking in leases with new tenants. But if somebody is an existing tenant and has essentially the right to smoke, and smoking is a legal behavior, then it’s pretty hard to take away a legal right from someone.”

Santa Monica’s website says the city “is a leader in protecting its residents and visitors from the harms of secondhand smoke.” The American Lung Assn. recently gave the city an A for smoke-free outdoor air but a D for smoke-free housing.

Beth Miller, a renter in a coastal complex, said she moved in with a friend because her next-door neighbor’s cigar smoke aggravated her asthma. Now that it’s winter and she can keep her doors and windows closed, she’s back in her rent-controlled unit.

“Once it warms up, the sun comes pouring in and I don’t have air-conditioning,” Miller said. “I don’t want to be forced out. If I move, the same thing could happen again.”

Marty Shapiro, her cigar-smoking neighbor, spoke out against further restrictions at a December Rent Control Board meeting at which one member advocated banning smoking in all multifamily apartments and private patios and balconies. “You’ve eliminated smoking in restaurant patios and my swimming pool area, and now you’re going after [the areas] in my apartment,” Shapiro said.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said she hopes there’s a way to balance the issues. “We have to be very careful when talking about circumscribing what people can do in their own homes,” she said.

The movement to limit or ban smoking at multiple-unit residences has made the most headway in the Bay Area. In 2007, Oakland became the first California city to require landlords to designate units as smoking or nonsmoking, and landlords and condo sellers there must disclose the status of their units to prospective tenants or buyers. Belmont in Santa Clara County went further last year, barring tobacco smoke in apartments. Richmond, east of San Francisco, adopted a similar policy that will go into effect next year.

In Southern California, a Calabasas ordinance requires that by 2012 at least 80% of all apartment units be designated permanently as nonsmoking.

Some landlords are requiring that new tenants agree not to smoke. Bill Dawson, vice president of Sullivan-Dituri, a property management company, recently instituted that policy at the courtyard apartment building where Horelick and his family live.

Related Management in November launched a no-smoking program in a couple of its high-end properties in New York City and hopes to expand it to California.

“I do not believe smokers are a protected class,” said Jeff Brodsky, president of Related Management. “If secondhand smoke emanating from an apartment is compromising another apartment . . . the landlord has to take some steps to actively mitigate that.”

Karlsson, an art teacher, said she enjoys letting her 3-year-old daughter Meleja sit at an easel to paint on the narrow upstairs balcony of their rent-controlled apartment. But if their neighbor is smoking, they are driven back indoors. Karlsson and Horelick have sealed their windows and doors as well as they can, but Meleja must regularly take a steroid and use an inhaler to control her asthma.

“They protect children [from secondhand smoke] at schools, the beach and the promenade,” Karlsson said, “but not where they sleep.”