The momentum to ban smoking in both public and private locales is growing at lightning speed. Each year, more cities and counties across the country prohibit smoking at restaurants and bars. Just a few months ago, hotel giant Marriot International became 100 percent smoke-free. And now, an increasing number of multifamily firms say it's time to join the movement to extinguish those lighters. The biggest such move: In September, senior housing developer First Centrum adopted a smoke-free policy for all new residents at 46 of its communities in six states. "No other major, national apartment development and management company has done this before," says Jim Bergman, director of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project of The Center for Social Gerontology in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The thing that really held apartment owners back from adopting smoke-free policies was they thought it was illegal and discriminatory." Bergman is helping to dispel that myth through the educational Web site, www.mismokefreeapartment.org, which is targeted to both owners and renters.
First Centrum, a Sterling, Va.-based firm, went smoke-free because of frequent resident complaints about second-hand smoke, says Rob Couch, president of Centrum Management, the company's management arm. The firm polled its senior housing residents to see how many actually smoked, discovered it was only 8 percent, and decided it made sense to implement the policy. "We are not pushing anyone out," reminds Couch. "Smoking residents are grandfathered in." New residents must sign a lease addendum agreeing to the policy–the standard procedure for banning smoking at multifamily properties.
In addition to resident satisfaction, smoke-free living offers multifamily owners a host of other economic benefits. These include a possible reduction in property insurance rates, lower turnover costs (nicotine smells and stains can be impossible to remove), and the elimination of cigarette-caused fires.
So are these financial paybacks reason enough to convince other big firms to follow in First Centrum's footsteps? "I certainly wouldn't say it's a trend at this point, but I know that firms are at least examining from a cost-benefit perspective [as to] whether it's a smart business decision, on a property by property basis," says Betsy Feigin Befus, director of property operations for Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council.
Rick Cavenaugh, president of Chicago-based Fifield Cos., says senior housing communities might be more likely to enact smoking bans for health reasons, but he doesn't expect conventional apartment firms to turn away potential renters and go smoke-free anytime soon. But sometimes even smokers appreciate the benefits of cigarette-free living. The Low Income Housing Institute recently opened a smoke-free apartment community in Seattle, and one of its first residents is a regular smoker. "He figured it's good for him," says Sharon Lee, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit developer. "He said it's good for his health not to smoke in his unit, and he will get lots of exercise walking up and down the stairs [to go outside the property and smoke]." –Rachel Z. Azoff
Here's a look at three housing providers with smoke-free policies:
Company Smoking Policy
Low Income Housing Institute: No smoking in units and common areas at three properties (senior and family), with plans for more smoke-free buildings
Seattle-based nonprofit affordable developer, owns/manages nearly 50 properties
First Centrum Communities: No smoking in units and common areas at its 46 senior housing communities Senior housing developer and manager based in Sterling, Va.
Philadelphia Housing Authority: No smoking in common areas of all communities Houses more than 80,000 people in Philadelphia