CITYWIDE — Santa Monica landlords are cheering on a bill being considered by the California State Assembly that would allow them to restrict smoking in rentals, a measure which puts renters’ rights groups in the uncomfortable position of defending a deadly habit.

While there is no prohibition on landlords prohibiting smoking, the bill, put forward by State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley), would specifically make it clear that they have the power to do so under California law. The goal is to protect people living in close proximity from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

Landlords see it as a way to keep renters happy and make their units more attractive, said Wes Wellman, president of the Action Apartment Association in Santa Monica.

“The problem is that with existing tenants, there’s no way to hermetically seal a unit. Smoke can get through cracks, floors, ventilation and plumbing and affect an innocent third party,” Wellman said.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights co-chair Patricia Hoffman opposed the ban, but only for renters that already occupy units when the bill comes into effect.

If so, it could be used to oust long-time tenants from rent-controlled apartments, she said.

“I think it’s one thing to start a new contract with someone who isn’t already an existing tenant,” Hoffman said. “If you have an existing tenant in a rent control place, I don’t think smoking should be grounds for eviction.”

The habit is legal, and renters should have the right to pursue legal activities in their homes without fear of being tossed out, Hoffman said.

“I think smoking is a bad thing, I just think losing one’s housing is a terrible thing,” Hoffman said.

Attitudes in the capital have taken a dramatic swing in recent years. When Padilla first tried to pass a similar bill, it never made it out of committee, said spokeswoman Taryn Kinney.

This time, it sailed through the State Senate with a 33 to 2 vote.

Senators may have been swayed by the 35 cities and counties that have enacted similar provisions on a local level, Kinney said.

Not all felt that way.

State Sen. Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon) voted against the measure, despite the fact that Temecula, where one of his district offices is located, was the first city to pass an ordinance requiring that a certain number of units in each market-rate housing project be set aside as non-smoking.

“Apartment managers already have the ability to restrict smoking,” Anderson said. “Using the heavy hand of government to solve a private, civil matter is not appropriate nor necessary.”

Although the Santa Monica City Council has seen fit to prohibit smoking in many public and private locations — commercial buildings, city buildings and common areas, to name a few — it has not tackled dwellings.

Some of the changes, like prohibiting smoking on patios, actually worsened the situation for neighbors of smokers, Wellman said.

“It exacerbated the problem by not allowing them to smoke anywhere but within the unit,” Wellman said.

Action opposed that measure, opting instead for an outright ban like the one Padilla proposed.

“This is life or death for tenants being affected by this,” Wellman said. “All we can do is support those people leading this.”

The bill won’t lead to an outright ban on smoking, Wellman predicted.

“The marketplace will respond to that just like with pets,” he said. “Some won’t rent to pets at all, and some will seize the opportunity to get a premium. The marketplace will respond and create opportunities for those that want a smoke-free environment and those that want to smoke.”

According to the bill, 86 percent of Californian adults don’t smoke. At the same time, secondhand smoke is considered a dangerous carcinogen that is responsible for an estimated 49,400 deaths nationwide each year.

If the bill passes the State Assembly, it will go to Gov. Jerry Brown for final approval.

It would take effect for all leases signed after Jan. 1, 2012.

ashley@smdp.com