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(From left to right) Bette Shapiro, Divina Sevilla and Aurora Zepeda want smoking banned at their apartment complex on Fifth Street. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITYWIDE — Santa Monica may join a growing number of California cities and counties in banning smoking for new tenants in apartment complexes and condominiums Tuesday night.

The goal is to protect non-smoking tenants from secondhand smoke, a substance with at least 69 known carcinogens that can seep through walls, electrical sockets and travel through air ducts.

It is known to cause cancer and other health problems in people who have never smoked, and has particularly nasty impacts on children and the elderly, according to the National Cancer Institute.

As proposed, the ordinance would prohibit smoking in multi-unit residential housing, like apartment complexes, for all new tenants. Existing residents who smoke could continue to do so until they move out.

In a staff report, city officials ask the council to weigh in on a number of issues still up in the air, including how to determine if an existing unit should be considered smoking or nonsmoking, whether condominiums should be included in the ordinance and how the ordinance will be enforced.

Council members first considered the ban in December 2011. At that time, they chose to pass a prohibition on smoking in all new hotels, allowing owners of existing hotels to designate their hotels smoking or nonsmoking.

They put off the piece of the measure that would have done the same for apartment complexes and condominiums, however, when the concept hit a wall with council members concerned with individual liberties.

Hazy enforcement policies drew pointed questions from Councilmember Kevin McKeown.

“And how do you enforce something like this?” McKeown asked. “Will it be neighbors turning in neighbors? … Are we going to have police knocking on doors to check ashtrays?”

The current proposal recommends that violations be dealt with by tenants in small claims court rather than by any direct action of city staff or police.

Though council could consider direct enforcement, officials recommend against it, saying that “it is not clear how staff would gather evidence sufficient to prove violations in court.”

Another method would be to require a nonsmoking clause in a tenant’s lease.

That got a big thumbs up from Esther Schiller, director of Smokefree Air For Everyone and the Smokefree Apartment House Registry.

Including a nonsmoking clause in a lease gives apartment owners the right to evict a tenant who violates the agreement. That could be good for apartment owners, especially those concerned that tenants who contract illnesses from secondhand smoke may sue them.

“More and more we’re hoping that landlords will realize that it’s simply not a good business decision to allow smoking in their apartments because it represents a liability they are not protected from,” Schiller said.

According to a city staff report, apartment owners aren’t interested in taking on the extra duties to enforce anti-smoking policies.

Another controversial piece of the ordinance required current tenants to declare whether or not they want the freedom to smoke in their apartments.

Incoming tenants would receive a list of smoking and nonsmoking units so that they could choose to avoid rentals near smokers if they wish.

If they did not respond to the call, the units would default to nonsmoking.

Those involved in affordable housing, and some members of the City Council, worried that the new rules could hurt elderly smokers or smokers in rent-controlled units with landlords that might use lighting up as an excuse to kick them out.

Officials have since revised that policy proposal, instead requiring nonsmokers to “opt-in” to smokefree housing, making the default designation for each unit “smoking” until that tenant moves out.

The City Council could reverse that Tuesday, if members wish.

Anti-smoking advocates hail the new ordinance as a good first step that would eventually lead to the end of smoking in multi-unit family housing throughout Santa Monica.

That doesn’t mean it’s enough, especially for Bette Shapiro and her neighbors Aurora Zepeda, Divina Sevilla and Mimi Tegegene, all residents of an apartment complex on the 2000 block of Fifth Street.

The women live next door to smokers. Conditions have gotten so bad that they drafted a petition to their management company begging for some kind of redress.

Walking into Shapiro’s home, one would think that the ceilings and walls hadn’t been finished. Each of the vents is covered in plastic in an attempt to keep the smoke from an adjacent apartment out of her home.

Before the management company helped her seal the vents, she had to sleep on the floor near her front door to escape the smoke.

Shapiro used to be a foster parent. Pictures of the smiling children that she’s cared for cover her walls, framed in bright primary-colored frames.

“If I ever wanted to go back to it, I would never take them here,” she said.

Tegegene, a 15-year resident of the complex, can no longer open her patio door or the kitchen window lest smoke invade her home. She’s given away her patio furniture, her neighbors said.

A man who only identified himself as George — and George the First and George Michaels — is a smoker who lives in the apartment complex.

“I would veto that,” George said, referring to the proposed ban. “I would be against it all the way.”

George said that he’s partially disabled, and that going outside to have a cigarette would be inconvenient.

One of the main arguments against the ban centers on that concept of property rights, that a man or woman should be able to smoke in the privacy of their apartment just like residents of single-family homes can smoke in their residences.

That doesn’t fly with Zepeda.

“They’re choosing to smoke it. Why do I have to breathe it?” she said.

ashley@smdp.com

ashley@smdp.com