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At thousands of apartment buildings, residents breathe smoke-free

For smokers, finding an apartment to rent is harder than it used to be

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A woman stands in front of an apartment building while holding her dog.
Mary Nelson lives in the West Side Flats, a smoke-free apartment building in St. Paul. She says her apartment building's smoke-free policy was a big attraction for her.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Near the Mississippi River, just across from downtown St. Paul, stands the West Side Flats, an apartment building where all 178 units are smoke-free.

Resident Mary Nelson said living in a smoke-free building was definitely a selling point for her.

“The air seems cleaner. It's healthier,” she said.

Nelson said smokers living in the building go across the street to light up. “If you do smell smoke, it's not the norm,” she said.

For nonsmokers like Nelson, it’s easy to find apartments where you shouldn’t catch a whiff of tobacco. Thousands of apartment buildings in Minnesota have declared themselves smoke-free.

West Side Flats is owned by Sherman Associates, which has 5,000 apartment units in the Twin Cities. Senior vice president Chris Sherman said the company snuffed out smoking in its buildings about eight years ago.

”You cannot smoke within our units. You cannot smoke within our common areas. You cannot smoke within a certain number of feet of the building,” he said.

Sherman says going smoke-free made sense not just from a health perspective but a business standpoint, too. He said renters were demanding smoke-free apartments.

“This was a big component to make our communities a bit healthier and a bit more attractive to the large majority of rental housing customers in the market,” said Sherman.

Nonsmokers are a very large majority. As of 2015, roughly 1 in 6 Minnesota adults smoked.

Sherman said his company's policy was rolled out over two years.

“We wanted to make sure that if people wanted to move out, they could do it at the end of their lease and not have this smoke-free policy just all of a sudden take effect one day and put them in a tough spot,” he said.

Sherman says it's rare for tenants to violate the policy. If they do, they're warned they could face eviction. Just a handful of tenants have been booted out.

Landlords are on firm legal ground if they forbid tenants from lighting up. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, smokers are not a protected group.

A decade ago, only about 50 residences in the state prohibited smoking, according to Live Smoke Free, which tracks smoke-free housing.

Now, there are about 4,650 apartment buildings, condos, town homes and cooperatives that ban smoking.

“This is a conservative estimate,” said Live Smoke Free program director Kara Skahen. “There are probably many more that we don't know about.”

Skahen says state law prohibits smoking in common areas of apartment buildings but property owners are free to forbid smoking  — including vaping — throughout their properties.

She said low-income renters are more likely to live in properties that allow smoking.

“We're still seeing a large disparity of folks who live in those apartments that are still being exposed to secondhand smoke and therefore disproportionately harmed by the health impacts of secondhand smoke,” Skahen said.

But all public housing is smoke-free. That’s been the rule — nationwide — since last summer.

The St. Paul Public Housing Authority started connecting residents with smoking cessation programs more than a year before the ban went into effect.

“What we were trying to focus on was not shaming residents who smoked but working collaboratively with both nonsmokers and smokers to comply with the rules,” said Alicia Huckleby, resident initiatives director with the St. Paul Public Housing Authority, which provides homes for some 11,000 people.

Two people sit at a table in a meeting room.
Alicia Huckleby, right, of the St. Paul Public Housing Agency helped tenants quit smoking. Maintenance director Tim Angaran, left, says smoke-free apartments are cheaper to maintain.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Tenant Donna Walters says the housing authority's educational efforts were very helpful.

“It brought all of us to address our smoking,” she said. “We got more informed about what tar and nicotine does to your body and to the atmosphere. So, it was very very educational.”

Walters says she’s smoking a lot less. She said that most people in the building are obeying the new rule, as far as she can tell.

“We have nobody who's been busted out and caught for smoking in their apartment and have a lease violation,” she said.

Tenant John Cardoza gave up smoking 18 years ago but lived in an apartment between two smokers.

“Getting smoke into my apartment was not very pleasant,” he said. “So, the new rule was something I looked forward to.”

The housing authority says going smoke-free has also reduced maintenance costs and sped up the process of preparing apartments for new tenants, shaving a day or two off the extra painting and cleaning needed to fix smoke damage.

"A unit where a smoker has been for several years, we'll need to thoroughly wash walls,” said Tim Angaran, the housing authority's maintenance director. “We'll need to prime every surface. We'll need to apply additional coats of paint.”