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In a smoke-filled room... 

Cigarettes are banned from bars and restaurants. Could apartments be next?

Nationwide, many faces and names are attached to the latest battle in the smoking war, but in Colorado Springs one woman personifies the issue.

Elizabeth Reed is known to government officials for her long-winded speeches at City Council meetings, her barrages of e-mails to the Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs, her petitions and badgering.

"[The Housing Authority] is trying to kill my mom," Reed, a part-time geriatric caregiver, writes in one of her many e-mails to the Independent, "and the smokers are happy to help."

Housing Authority officials aren't willing to grant Reed's request to make at least one of their nine senior-living apartment buildings nonsmoking. Instead, officials — including Housing Authority board member and former Vice Mayor Larry Small — portray the 43-year-old as a lonely agitator.

"I know where you're getting this from," Small tells the Independent, when questioned about smoking in Authority-owned buildings. "You tell me you've talked to many people, and I know the one complaint, and we've looked into that. And we've heard it over and over again from a few individuals in one unit, and I'm just not going to go any further in this discussion."

But like it or not, the issue of tobacco smoking in apartments — government-owned or otherwise — is bigger than Reed. Way bigger.

Spurred by research into the dangers of secondhand smoke, many states long ago banned puffing in bars, restaurants, hotels and other public spaces. Now, slowly, the nation is beginning to consider what limitations, if any, should be put on apartments.

In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be trying to enact a ban on smoking in apartments. The mayor later denied it.

This summer, Santa Monica almost became the eighth California city to approve a ban or limit on smoking in apartments. The law ended up stalled — for reasons we'll explain later — but not because the majority of Councilors had any reservations about giving cigarettes the boot. At the meeting where the law was given an initial go-ahead, the Santa Monica Mirror reports, some City Councilors insisted the ban — for all new occupants of multi-unit dwellings — didn't go far enough.

"We're way behind the curve here. I don't care what anybody else says. Santa Monica likes to think of itself as a leader. It's a follower here," Council member Bobby Shriver was quoted as saying. "...I don't know why we don't have a policy where we say all the units are going to be smoke-free. Why isn't that a good policy?"

Individuals and governments are confronting the matter through many lenses. Some say it's about freedom from intrusion, and the sanctity of the home. Others say it's about public health, and the government's role in ensuring the right to breathe free. Still others see it as simply a nuisance to be decided by little more than a study of balance sheets.

For most, however, the issue of smoking in apartments is intensely sensitive and emotional. Perhaps because the apartment rides a fine line between public space and private space, between something that belongs only to the individual and something shared.

Changes creeping

When the nation wants to know what progressive changes will soon take hold, it looks to California. When Colorado wants to know the same, it looks to Boulder.

Unlike officials at the Housing Authority of Colorado Springs, representatives of Boulder Housing Partners don't think there's anything outrageous about banning smoking in public housing. In fact, they've already done it.

"I think the event that helped us get focused on our own decision was in 2009, we adopted an organization-wide sustainability plan which included a clean-air goal [of zero pollution from energy consumption]," says executive director Betsey Martens. "...We certainly can't have a clean-air policy and allow people to smoke."

As the housing authority for the city of Boulder, BHP had tested a ban on a single building in 2008; in September 2011, it instituted a full ban. But first, it underwent an extensive public process, and partnered with the anti-smoking nonprofit Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution of Colorado (GASP) to provide cessation and education programs to the authority's smoking tenants.

"You just have to be so thoughtful about it, and we deliberated for, I'd say, several years, really weighing the needs of those for whom smoking brings great comfort ... against those who are very affected by smoke," she says. "It's one of the most intractable problems in housing."

In the end, the city's 1,000 housing authority units went smoke-free. Martens still gets a few complaints from smokers about the change, but says most people seem happy with it. And, as a bonus, it's cheaper for the authority to clean an apartment when a tenant moves out.

Pete Bialick, GASP executive director, says his organization knows of 28 Colorado housing authorities — about a third — that have either adopted some nonsmoking policies or are in the process of doing so. Among those with total bans are Loveland and Fort Collins. Denver has three nonsmoking housing authority buildings.

GASP, which receives state funds, came into being after the passage of Colorado's Indoor Clean Air Act of 2006, which banned smoking in most public buildings. The group's mission is to advocate for nonsmoking policies — and its No. 1 goal is to eliminate smoke from multiunit housing.

Bialick says most people understand the logic behind banning smoking in restaurants and retail spaces, but "people think that people should be allowed to smoke in their own homes; that if they do it in their own homes, they're not going to be bothering anybody else. But the fact is, up to 50 percent of the smoke can filtrate into other people's apartments and start damaging and hurting other people's health."

The federal government branch that funds housing authorities agrees with Bialick, though it can't force nonsmoking policies because authorities are considered independent entities.

"Housing authorities are not required to offer nonsmoking," explains U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Donna White, "[but] we strongly encourage them to."

HUD issued a statement in 2009 to all housing authorities, urging them to adopt nonsmoking policies. In part, it reads, "Because Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) can migrate between units in multifamily housing, causing respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer, and other adverse health effects in neighboring families, the Department is encouraging PHAs [public housing authorities] to adopt non-smoking policies."

Statewide, private apartments are reflecting a changing attitude about smoking. Though exact numbers aren't available, Nancy Burke, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association, says she's noticed more apartment owners switching to nonsmoking. Many have watched smoking bans go up for businesses, and see their own bans as protecting the health of their residents and the value of their property.

Others have different reasons.

"I think you had 'Wave 1' with smoking in bars, but I think 'Wave 2' was when it was OK to buy marijuana and grow a few plants," she says. "What [apartment owners] said is, 'We're just going to instate no-smoking policies.'"

In other words, the no-smoking policy is meant for pot-smokers, too. Interestingly, in Santa Monica, it was concerns about limiting apartment dwellers' access to medical marijuana that stalled the city's no-smoking apartment law.

But weedier issues aside, tobacco smoke remains the main focus of the discussion of apartments and smoking. And, like housing authorities, private apartment owners can get a little urging from the government. Nigel Guyot, program manager of the tobacco education prevention program at El Paso County Public Health, says he's got plenty of literature for any landlord who wants to make the switch. Though there are no legal requirements for making a building "nonsmoking," the government has plenty of suggestions for creating a clean and toxin-free environment.

"Anything that's porous in an apartment or a dwelling can absorb the smoke particles," Guyot says, noting drywall, paint and wood can absorb toxins. "Smoke goes everywhere. That's what we've learned about it."

Studies are beginning to show that the stale smell that clings to items exposed to smoke is harmful. Dr. Lowell Dale, medical director of Mayo Clinic Tobacco Quitline and an associate professor of medicine at the clinic's College of Medicine, writes in an online forum that "thirdhand smoke" combines with indoor pollutants to create a toxic and cancer-causing mix.

"Studies show that thirdhand smoke clings to hair, skin, clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces, even long after smoking has stopped," he writes. "...Thirdhand smoke can't be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home."

But that message doesn't appear to be changing much locally. While a GASP website features a growing list of tens of thousands of nonsmoking Colorado apartments, Guyot hasn't noticed many landlords making the switch around these parts. In fact, he can't remember the last time he fielded such a call from a landlord.

A test of wills

On a summer afternoon, seven older ladies shuffle down to the first floor of the Senior Heritage Plaza at 1410 N. Hancock Ave. They're quiet at first, offering meek or even frightened smiles for the reporter now in their midst. But soon, one starts talking. Then another. Within minutes, they're interrupting each other.

"I can't believe they don't have a rule [that] you can't smoke where the senior citizens are," exclaims Elfern Lunzer, an eight-year resident. "It's like they don't care. It's like they say, 'They're going to die anyway.'"

Maryam Yeuredjian, a tiny woman with a heavy accent from her native Jordan, says, "I complain all the time and sometimes I'm bleeding — I show you." She points to her face. "I'm sometimes bleeding from my nose."

Carol Howard can smell the smoke coming through her vents. Georgia Mitchell smells it in the hall.

All the women have health problems worsened by tobacco smoke: heart conditions, breathing issues that leave them reliant on oxygen tanks, chronic sinus infections. Margarita Rubio recently had to go the doctor for a cough she blames on the smoke.

Senior Heritage Plaza is the home of Ethel Rose Reed, Elizabeth Reed's mother. Known as "Rose," the chic-looking 79-year-old suffers from asthma, bleeding stomach ulcers and mild cognitive impairment.

"It's unconscionable," she says in the crisp tone of a former music teacher, "that we have elderly people that are subjected to smoke."

Several doctors and medical professionals have confirmed in writing to the Housing Authority that tobacco smoke will worsen Rose's condition. "Due to her medical issues Ms. [Rose] Reed is required to reside in a smoke-free building," nurse practitioner Mary Jo Shaffer wrote plainly in January 2012.

Rose and her neighbors say they've griped for years to building supervisor Terri Shaver, but have been told, "If you don't like it, move somewhere else." (Shaver didn't return phone calls seeking comment.) In December 2011, 17 residents of the 32-unit building signed a petition circulated by Reed asking to make the building nonsmoking. The Housing Authority wasn't moved.

Like all nine senior-living apartment buildings and 433 scattered-site family units run by the Authority, the Senior Heritage Plaza remains smoking-optional, meaning smokers can puff away in their own units, but not in common areas. Authority executive director Gene Montoya thinks the policy is reasonable, saying he doesn't believe smoke can travel through a building if residents only smoke in their own units, especially given that the Senior Heritage Plaza's ventilation system is segregated. (In fairness, the only public part of the building where this reporter could clearly smell smoke was in the stairwells.)

What's more, he notes many older residents have smoked all their lives, and were even encouraged to do so in their youth.

"All those folks that smoked in World War II, Vietnam, they all received as part of their rations cartons of cigarettes," he says.

Montoya says asking seniors to suddenly give up the habit or go outside to smoke is cruel — and a violation of the sanctity of their home. Still, he thinks that at least some Authority buildings may eventually go smoke-free.

"I do think in three to five years, as that generation that I spoke about earlier passes away, we're going to find ourselves changing our policy," he says.

But Larry Small, at least, won't be heralding any change. Contacted by phone, the board member — who notes his own home "isn't nonsmoking" — raises his voice defending the rights of occupants to smoke in their apartments.

"These people rent those places, and they live in them as their home," he says. "They need to be permitted to use them in the fashion that they need to use them...

"Because a person is old or poor doesn't mean the government has a right to dictate to them how they live in their own homes. These people are human beings who have the same rights as any other person who has the means to live in their own home with their own needs, and I'm not ever going to infringe on somebody's right to live peacefully in a home they're paying for."

Fact and fiction

Emotions aside, when it comes to the dangers of smoking, the facts are clearly on the side of the anti-smoking crowd.

Since the Mad Men era, we've learned a lot about cigarettes' harmful effects. Most of us have heard it all before. Secondhand smoke contains 7,000-plus chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 proven to cause cancer. Inhaling secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer and heart disease. Tobacco is the nation's leading cause of preventable death. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.

But there's more.

Studies have shown, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms, that even in the best-designed apartments — ones with separate ventilation systems and tightly sealed windows and doors — smoke still travels from one apartment to another. That's true even if apartments have air filters.

"The only way to protect one apartment is to make the entire building smoke-free," says Darryl Konter, CDC spokesperson.

Aside from health effects, advocates for nonsmoking policies often cite safety and economic concerns. They claim smoking increases risk of fire, insurance costs and turnover costs for apartments.

It seems that some, but perhaps not all, of those claims are true.

Smokers undoubtedly pose a greater fire risk than nonsmokers. The 2011 Colorado Springs Fire Department Statistical Abstract shows that over five years, smoking was one of the leading causes of structure fires, igniting 80 blazes. In multi-family units, smoking was the third-leading cause of fires.

The insurance claim, however, is iffy. Don Sicard of HUB International, which insures the local Housing Authority, notes that an insurance underwriter can lower a premium because of a nonsmoking policy. But, he says, many insurers won't, because "even if it was a smoke-free building, it's hard to monitor that."

On the turnover-cost side, there are more muddled facts. Laura Russmann, executive director of the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado, notes that nonsmokers leave "less residue to paint over when a person moves out." Martens, of Boulder Housing Partners, says clean-up costs for turned-over apartments dropped when BHP went nonsmoking. Some Springs apartment owners contacted by phone agree, noting that they've had to replace everything from carpet and curtains to cabinets and paint when a smoker has moved out.

But transferring a building to nonsmoking can be expensive. Though legally a landlord faces no requirements to switch to nonsmoking, many want to eradicate the smell and toxins, leading to cleaning and replacement costs. Sometimes, a policy change will also prompt smoking residents to move out, meaning lost rent.

Then there's the hassle. In most cases, landlords must wait for smokers' leases to expire before a building can be fully smoke-free. In the meantime, smokers object. Meetings are held. Emotions run high.

And it's no wonder. Anna Hagney, a respiratory therapist with Memorial Health System, reminds us that smoking is highly addictive, especially if patients start young.

"A lot of these elderly or geriatric populations, they started smoking when their brain was still developing," she notes, saying the addiction becomes ingrained biologically.

That said, Hagney thinks a nonsmoking policy in apartments could ultimately help residents quit and boost their health. It would also do a great service to their neighbors, because secondhand smoke is actually worse than firsthand. When a smoker inhales, their lungs break down particles in the smoke, she says, causing it to be more toxic upon exhale.

Ms. Reed's long war

Elizabeth Reed wears a perpetually pleading expression; her childlike features and bouncing curls do little to hide her obvious anxiety.

When talking of her battle with the Housing Authority, she comes armed with papers. Show her an interest and give her your e-mail address, and Reed will bombard you with pictures, articles and newsletters. She will send three-page-long diatribes. She will beg and beseech and even threaten to go elsewhere if she is not acknowledged.

At the core of Reed's argument are two themes. First, she believes she's on the right side of science. And second, she believes she's fighting for her mother's life. Thus, she's outraged that no governmental authorities are jumping to her defense.

"[S]moke incursion is like someone taking an invisible pill," Reed writes in an e-mail to the Indy, "and then being able to come in with an invisible pillow and suffocate you multiple times a day, pressing with variable force, for variable durations."

Reed's mother isn't in a hurry to leave the well-kept Senior Heritage Plaza. There's the companionship of her neighbors, and the proximity to conveniences — a bus stop out the front door, the Senior Center practically next door. And, of course, there's the subsidy. A low-income senior, Rose can't afford much more than the $178 a month she pays.

Rose's apartment is almost comically tiny, especially with an upright piano shoved determinedly inside. She moved here in summer 2009 from a different Housing Authority apartment contaminated with mold. Soon afterward, she and her daughter began struggling with the Housing Authority over the smoke here.

Reed sent letters and made calls. That, in turn, escalated into a battle — one that the Reeds appear to be losing. Since 2011, they've filed Requests for Reasonable Accommodation with the Housing Authority. They've had their complaint seen by the Colorado Civil Rights Division for possible violations of the Fair Housing Act. They've even appealed to HUD, alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. All entities have considered the facts, and all have thus far refused to require a nonsmoking policy at Senior Heritage Plaza.

It should be noted that the Housing Authority has, at times, offered to set up air purifiers in Rose's space, or even to move smokers around to create a nonsmoking wing of the building. But the Reeds weren't satisfied with those offers, citing research showing that it won't rid the building of toxins. They continue to pursue their HUD complaint.

"I am not letting this stand," Reed wrote to the Indy of HUD's recent Preliminary Finding of Compliance in her case. "They will find, ultimately, that Housing is not in compliance."

With her prospects thinning, Reed has been working behind the scenes with city employees in hopes that City Council might adopt a resolution against smoking in Housing Authority buildings.

Of course, even if Council did make such a bold move, a resolution lacks enforcement power. And Council has no right to force the Authority's hand.

Low on options

When it comes down to it, Reed's biggest concern is her mother. Even if the Authority doesn't budge in its stance, she'd be satisfied to see Rose moved to a nonsmoking building. The Reeds had a chance to do exactly that in 2006, when Rose was accepted into the Section 8 program, which offers low-income people subsidies at private rentals. Rose didn't respond to that offer, and it expired. She says she never saw the letter, though Montoya says it was sent.

Whatever the case, Section 8 is an extremely popular federal program, and getting accepted takes years. Rose isn't willing to wait for a second chance, and Montoya says regulations prevent him from circumventing the normal process.

Rose's other option would be to rent a private apartment at full cost. But even if she could get by without her subsidy, she might have trouble finding a nonsmoking apartment at a moderate price, especially in a bustling rental market with just a 6 percent vacancy rate.

Look at Greccio Housing, a nonprofit that runs 20 apartment buildings (and owns 15 of them). It has offered low-income housing since 1990, but not a single building is nonsmoking.

Jill Gaebler, Greccio's development director, is working to change that, in a seven-unit building that's home to a lot of kids. (Greccio is considering making a newly purchased 21-unit building nonsmoking, too.) It's an undertaking. As a nonprofit, Greccio must OK the change with its major funders. It's also undergoing a process of surveying and public input, and has secured a small sponsorship from Memorial Health System for a smoking cessation program for tenants.

And because Gaebler wants the building to eventually be free from all smoke-related toxins, she's had to secure funds for a clean-up. Three grant applications are in the mail that would pay for new carpet, linoleum and blinds, as well as for a fog treatment to clean the porous parts of the units.

Looking further up the financial spectrum, Griffis/Blessing, which owns nearly 4,000 mostly higher-end apartments in the Springs, has precious few smoke-free properties. Pat Stanforth, senior vice president of Griffis/Blessing, says nonsmoking apartments make sense economically, and she knows that nonsmokers, who are in the vast majority, prefer smoke-free buildings.

But like Gaebler, Stanforth says making the switch is difficult. That's especially true in a large building, where a landlord must change the rules individually for each tenant as his lease expires. Meanwhile, the clean-up of the property gets under way even as tenants still on old leases continue to puff away indoors.

"I think for owners, in the long run, it would be beneficial to have more nonsmoking buildings," she says, "but it is hard to do, harder than you think."

Becky Deeter, manager of Griffis-owned Bella Springs Apartments in the Northgate area, recently transitioned one 12-year-old, eight-unit building to nonsmoking. Since the building was part of a larger complex, and few of the building's tenants smoked, Deeter simply transferred the smokers to other apartments on-site. The biggest hassle: turning the units over once the smokers left, which cost $4,000 to $5,000 in clean-up costs, plus lost rent.

But Deeter says residents at the nonsmoking building are happy, and a survey of her residents found 80 percent favored nonsmoking buildings.

For her part, Deeter says smoking is a hassle whether or not it's allowed. If smoking is allowed, nonsmokers complain about the smoke. If it's banned, keeping smokers from lighting up becomes an enforcement issue.

Still Deeter can feel the winds of change. And she thinks they smell clean.

"If I have a chance to do a new property, I will definitely designate buildings right off the bat as nonsmoking buildings, because there's enough people now to warrant nonsmoking buildings without there being a loss, a vacancy," she says. "I would make probably 80 percent of my property nonsmoking."

stanley@csindy.com

Second thoughts

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inhaling secondhand smoke can lead to the same health problems that smoking can. Here are some of the issues secondhand smoke can cause or exacerbate:

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