Two Calif. Cities to Vote on Banning Smoking in Apartments

Lawmakers in two California cities are casting votes this month on unprecedented legislation that would widen a growing voluntary movement by landlords and resident associations to ban smoking inside apartments and condos.

Today in Calabasas, the City Council plans to vote on expanding its anti-smoking law to bar renters from lighting up inside existing apartments. It would exempt current resident smokers until they moved but would require all new buildings with at least 15 units, including condos, to be smoke-free.

Next Tuesday, the City Council of Belmont is scheduled to cast a final vote on a similar measure that won initial approval last week. The ordinance, which applies to apartments and condos, would allow fines and evictions if neighbors complained and smokers didn't heed warnings.

The legislative push, which has triggered death threats against council members, is a controversial part of a mostly voluntary effort to prod landlords and condo associations to adopt smoke-free policies.

Health officials in about 30 states promote the health and economic benefits, including reduced fire risk and lower cleanup costs for multiunit housing, says Jim Bergman, director of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project, a Michigan group funded partly by the state.

Tens of thousands of apartments and condos have gone smoke-free in the past five years, management companies and health activists say. Last month, Guardian Management began phasing in a smoke-free policy at 8,000 of its rental units, mostly in Oregon and Washington.

"We've proven the voluntary approach can work very well," Bergman says. He doesn't think legislative bans will work because of a "my home is my castle" philosophy.

"The time has come. The evils of smoking have been known for decades," says Barry Groveman, a Calabasas councilman who co-wrote the proposal.

Still, he knows he's struck a nerve. "I've gotten threats like you wouldn't believe," Groveman says.

"Fresh air should be breathed by everybody," Belmont Mayor Coralin Feierbach says. She cites a 2006 surgeon general's report that says no level of secondhand smoke is risk-free.

Critics say the bans violate civil and personal property rights. "You should be able to do as you wish in your own home," says Michon Coleman of the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.

Belmont's ordinance is "way over the top," because a smoker can be evicted simply for lighting up, says Warren Lieberman, one of two council members who oppose it.

Such criticism prompted Oakland last month to remove a ban on smoking in new apartments and condos from an ordinance that barred lighting up in public places.

Feierbach says she never intended to create a stir, but she expects other cities to follow Belmont. "We really broke ground," she says.