MIAMI — Part-time security guard Dale Parsons has smoked for more than 50 years, but for the new year she decided to finally kick the habit for good. In addition to her health, she has another big reason to succeed: Her affordable-housing apartment complex just went cold turkey.
On Jan. 1, Flagler Village, a 49-unit rental community of mostly duplexes near Key West, banned smoking on the grounds and inside all units.
It’s part of a growing trend of residential multi-unit buildings and developments, both privately and government-owned, voluntarily to implement no-smoking policies.
With no-smoking laws enacted in much of the public domain — including airplanes, hotels, restaurants, bars, parks, schools, hospitals and public buildings — tobacco prevention specialists see places where people live as new territory to conquer.
“In 2000, it was unheard of,” said Matthew Competiello, program manager for the American Lung Association. “But over the past five or six years there has been a lot of demand for smoke-free housing.”
Valencia Morris, the tobacco prevention specialist for the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, said complex-wide smoking bans are starting to become an “amenity.”
“A lot of people are wanting this, just like having a gym on the premises,” she said.
But with an adult smoking population in Florida of 17.1 percent, according to a state survey conducted in 2010, extending smoking bans into residences definitely has been met with opposition.
“We have ruffled some feathers,” said Mitzy Cordova, manager of Flagler Village, which had smokers in 18 of the 49 units when its ban took effect.
“While most residents say ‘Wow, Mitzy, this is great’ — one has a newborn and lives next to a smoker and does not want her baby to breathe secondhand smoke, I have at least two that say they won’t quit smoking in their homes no matter what,” Cordova said.
Among those opposed to the ban at Flagler Village is Wayne Sepanik, who has lived there since it opened two years ago. And the semi-retired 63-year-old is a non-smoker.
“I think it’s against their civil rights,” he said. “People moved here on the premise to have affordable housing and live a happy life and all of a sudden there is no smoking. It’s an addiction and a sickness and a lot of people here can’t afford to go anyplace else.”
But Cordova says the law is on the side of property owners. “The right to smoke is not part of the Constitution,” she said, adding that Flagler Village is not discriminating against smokers.
“We’re not telling anybody they cannot smoke,” she said. “We’re telling them they cannot smoke on the property.”
In the Keys, tourists have discovered that finding a hotel, guesthouse or vacation rental that allows smoking inside is almost impossible these days. In a 2010 post on TripAdvisor.com, a woman from Virginia wrote: “Looking desperately for a nice, quality resort hotel in Key West that still allows smoking without being fined or condemned to the loading dock.”
But the opposite has been true when trying to find nonsmoking residential rental community along the island chain. Donna Stayton, a health education program consultant with Tobacco Free Florida Keys, estimates she knows of only about 12 multi-unit developments in the Keys that ban smoking, and most have done so recently.
Tobacco Free Florida Keys has helped three of the developments: Flagler Village and Banyan Grove, both on Stock Island and owned by the Wendover Group, and the 2-year-old Poinciana Royale in Key West, which opened as smoke-free.
Jonathan Wolf, founder and president of Altamonte Springs-based Wendover Housing Partners, said he had been wanting to ban smoking for a while at his 30 affordable developments, most of which are in Florida.
“The single most thing we can do to help our residents with their own health and their own finances is to have them stop smoking,” said Wolf, a nonsmoker. “But whenever you put in a social change as large as this, you get an element of pushback from the residents and from the people who manage the properties.”
Wolf said the support of property manager Cordova and Tobacco Free Florida Keys, as well as the near-Key West location, where there is a huge shortage of affordable housing, made Flagler Village and Banyan Grove perfect communities to start. Wolf expects them to be successful models he can use to help roll out similar bans later in the year to his other properties around the state.
“There was a lot of hullabaloo when they said there could be no more smoking in restaurants and bars — a lot of ‘Oh, my goodness, it would be the death of the industry,’” Wolf said. “But it all came and went.”
Now, residential housing has become the target of many tobacco prevention programs. But because people have to live somewhere, it’s likely to remain an area that has to be tackled with education rather than laws.
“I don’t see any legislation at state levels like there are for restaurants and bars,” said Janisse Schoepp, senior program officer for the nonprofit Health Foundation of South Florida.
There are practical benefits for buildings to ban smoking. Smoking causes an estimated 7,600 fires per year in residential buildings in the United States, resulting in an average of about 365 deaths, nearly 1,000 injuries and $326 million in property loss.
Property managers and landlords can save money on insurance, maintenance and the costs of turning over a unit from one tenant to the next. Smoking units often require thousands of dollars more to repair or clean due to nicotine stains, cigarette burns and the odor.
“We always have to replace the carpet and repaint after a place has been left by a smoker,” Cordova said. “Sometimes the smell is so bad we have to tear out the drywall. We can sometimes turn over a nonsmoker’s apartment in eight hours, but it takes a week or two for a smoker’s.”
And it’s a good bet some of the higher costs to clean and repair a smoker’s apartment are passed along to all residents.
And the health effects of smoking are well documented. Each year in the United States, more than 400,000 people die of tobacco use and nearly 50,000 more die of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Tobacco Free Florida Keys just received a $54,000 grant from the nonprofit Health Foundation of South Florida for the “Smoke-Free Living Monroe Project.”
Monroe County’s adult smoking rates are highest in South Florida — at 21.1 percent, compared to 13.7 percent for Broward, 10.6 percent for Miami-Dade and 9 percent for Palm Beach, the lowest in the state.
In Broward, at least 20 residential complexes have gone smoke free, many with the help of a smoke-free initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control as part of the Affordable Health Care Act. Broward is the only county in Florida to receive the five-year Touch grant, Transforming Our Communities’ Health.
Competiello, who has been working on the initiative for the American Lung Association, says he was surprised to see that seniors are pushing hardest for the smoke-free housing.
“It’s bizarre because most people think the elderly are set in their ways,” Competiello said. “But according to the CDC only 10 percent of the elderly smoke. If you live that long, 60 or older, you likely aren’t a smoker.”
The campaign, “Change is in the Air,” uses a smoke-free housing tool kit provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has worked to help 404 housing authorities across the country go smoke-free.