The smokers finally moved out from 1150 K St. NW, a 130-unit condominium building, this week.
So ends a saga that involved the property management company, the condo board (which held a meeting and a hearing about the case), two property owners, a contractor, one attorney and multiple residents of the building. In the end, the owner of the unit where the smokers resided was fined hundreds of dollars, and the condo’s nuisance policy was strengthened to include secondhand smoke.
Peter Barbera and Kassi Saridakis, whose non-smoking tenants were affected by the smoke, are pleased it’s over. But they are weary from the battle, which cost them a huge amount of time and a not insignificant sum of money.
The situation, Saradakis rightly notes, highlights a gaping hole in the regulatory system:
“If we complain about noise and we call the police, they come right away,” Saradakis said. “But with secondhand smoke, which harms our health, no one is going to come out.”
It’s a problem that many may encounter in multi-unit dwellings like condos and apartment buildings: Cigarette smoke from a nearby unit comes into other units through ducts, hallways and crevices. The common area hallways smell of cigarette smoke, and nonsmokers find their units uninhabitable and can sometimes even develop health problems.
We told you earlier this year about a resident of a Connecticut Avenue building who waged – and won – a year-long battle make her unit habitable.
Here is the story of the Barbera, Saridakis and their tenants.
It began in August, when the couple signed a lease with Saridakis and her husband, Peter Barbera. Almost immediately, the couple noticed cigarette smoke in their apartment, and they notified Barbera and Saridakis.
Barbera tried to resolve the problem via the property management company. He even hired a contractor to install putty and reinforce insulation behind outlets and wall fixtures, where he suspected the smoke was entering.
But it didn’t help. Their nonsmoking tenants still had drifting cigarette smoke in their apartment on a nearly daily basis.
Barbera and Saridakis began forwarding their tenants’ complaints to the board, which discussed the matter at a meeting in November. After determining that the smoke constituted a nuisance under the condo rules, the board sent two violation letters to the owner of the unit where the smokers lived, threatening the owner with fines if the smoking didn’t stop.
The smokers continued lighting up in their apartment, several times a day and even odd early morning hours. More than 40 daily incidences were reported. Other affected neighbors submitted complaints as well.
Barbera, Saridakis, and their nonsmoking tenants tried to talk to the cigarette-smoking neighbors on multiple occasions, but they never answered their door. Their stance, according to others in the building who had talked to them, was that they were not going to stop smoking in their apartment, even if it meant other people were breathing their cigarette smoke in their own homes, involuntarily.
When it became clear the smokers weren’t going to stop, Saridakis contacted Smokefree DC and asked for advice and the name of an attorney. Smokefree DC board member JP Szymkowicz took the case. Said Szymkowicz:
“Many, if not most, condominiums and apartment complexes have existing rules regarding ‘nuisances’ and ‘harmful or offensive odors.’ The strategy employed in this case to utilize these existing rules to fight secondhand smoke that invades adjoining units leads to one result: Smokers must stop smoking in their unit if their smoke migrates into adjoining units.”
A Jan. 25 condo board hearing was scheduled. The board found that nothing had changed since it issued its warning, and it assessed the owner of the smokers’ unit $500 in fines. (Throughout, the owner had maintained that her tenants had a right to smoke in her unit, even if it was jeopardizing the health of neighors.)
The board gave the tenants until Feb. 5 to stop smoking in their unit and assessed a $51.28 daily fine for violations after that.
Still, the tenants smoked – until the day they moved out, Saridakis said. She is still trying to find out whether the owner of the smokers’ unit has received a bill for all the violations.
Now, the condo nuisance clause has an addendum, noted here in italics:
Avoid Disturbing Other Residents: Condominium living requires that each resident regulate the occupancy and use of his or her Unit so as not to unreasonably or unnecessarily disturb any other resident. Drifting secondhand smoke is one example of an unreasonable disturbance. Units causing drifting secondhand smoke that disturbs other residents may be subject to a fine for each occurrence.
What’s more, in future, any owner who rents out a unit must include a nonsmoking clause in the lease. That means that all rental units in the building will now be smokefree.
It shouldn’t have been so hard.
As Saridakis pointed out, secondhand smoke is harmful to people’s health. The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. It has 4,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known or suspected carcinogens. Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and heart problems, and it aggravates respiratory conditions.
People who live in condos and apartments must abide by a lot of rules – rules imposed to ensure that everyone who lives there can do so peaceably and safely. There are noise rules to ensure that people don’t have band practice at 3 a.m., for instance, because that will wake up the neighbors. Some condos have rules relating to odors, so no foul or obnoxious smells disturb others. Still others don’t let people grill on their balconies because that is a fire hazard. Even the number and the size of pets is regulated and enforceable.
But rules are generally devoid of any mention of secondhand smoke, a toxic substance that can make people sick and require the suffering homeowners to incur remediation costs. If pervasive enough, carpet, wall coverings, bedding and window treatments often carry the remaining toxins and smell of cigarette smoke, which is difficult to fully remediate without replacement.
Condo boards and apartment property management companies need to understand that secondhand smoke is not just a nuisance – it is a health hazard.
While many tenants can bring complaints about secondhand smoke under nuisance clauses, some condos and apartments have really weak rules. Rules should be adjusted to address secondhand smoke problems directly – and to protect everybody’s health.