Malcolm Lambert complains that smokers caused four fires in his apartment building over seven years.
On September 29, Blease Johnson moved the old sofa in his living room to the curb outside his apartment building, near the intersection of 36th Street and Monroe Avenue in Normal Heights. The sofa was stained. Cigarette burns dotted the cushions. A large burn mark covered an entire armrest. The sofa belonged to Johnson’s girlfriend, Susan Cole. She suffers from Huntington’s disease and spent most of her days on the couch, smoking as she watched television.
Less than a month after moving the sofa to the street, where a thrift store picked it up, Johnson found an eviction notice taped to his door. The “Three-Day Notice to Quit” stated the reason for the eviction.
“A fire was carelessly started in your apartment from a lit cigarette smoked by Susan Cole,” read the notice, dated October 25. “This fire destroyed your sofa and put other residents at risk for fire being spread to their apartments. This behavior…disrupts the livability of the property, adversely affects the health and safety of other residents.”
Days after receiving the notice, Johnson sits at a small wood-laminate dining room table in the apartment. Cole sits behind him on another sofa and watches television.
“This fire thing came out of left field. As soon as we put that sofa out there, this comes,” says Johnson in a deep, raspy voice. Johnson, a tall, heavyset African American in his late 30s, slides the notice across the table. “I admit, the sofa was in bad shape. It was old and beat up.”
Behind him, Cole stands and nearly loses her balance on her first step. She walks to the table and sits opposite Johnson. Her arm shakes as she picks up a pack of cigarettes.
After taking a drag off her cigarette, she flicks the ashes into a large coffee tin on the table.
“At no time has the smoke alarm went off, and at no time has anyone come because of a fire,” says Johnson.
Maurice Luque, spokesperson for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, confirmed that no incidents have been reported at that address.
Johnson and Cole believe that they were evicted because Cole is a smoker, and they feel the eviction is unfair.
However, one local nonprofit organization would disagree. Social Advocates for Youth San Diego, through its San Diego Smoke-Free Project, is working to outlaw smoking in multifamily housing and adult residential-care facilities. During the past five years, the project has tried to persuade building owners to prohibit smoking inside dwelling units, and during the past year, it has lobbied city councilmembers to draft an ordinance that would outlaw smoking. The project cites the dangers of fire and secondhand smoke as the reasons for a smoking ban.
“A large number of people living in apartment complexes are impacted by secondhand smoke, especially in lower-income housing and senior living facilities,” says Mary Baum, a program coordinator for the San Diego Smoke-Free Project and an employee of Social Advocates for Youth.
According to the American Lung Association’s Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing, 12 cities and 1 county in California have adopted ordinances that ban smoking in some percentage of multiunit apartment buildings. Last October, Contra Costa County, located in the Bay Area, adopted a nonsmoking ordinance that applies to every new apartment and condominium in buildings with four or more units. None of the 12 cities are in San Diego County. The closest is Temecula, in Riverside County, where in May 2007 city officials adopted an ordinance that requires 25 percent of the units in buildings with 10 or more units to be nonsmoking. The ordinance goes into effect in 2012.
Malcolm Lambert, a 78-year-old veteran, lives in Potiker Family Senior Residence, a low-income housing facility for seniors in the East Village. Lambert joins Baum and her associate Manuel Andrade at Claire de Lune coffee shop in North Park to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke and fires in apartment buildings.
In the seven years since he moved to Potiker, Lambert says smokers there have started four fires.
“Two weeks ago, a guy was smoking with his oxygen mask on, and he set his head on fire,” says Lambert.
He fears that the next fire might not be contained. Lambert, who uses a wheelchair, worries that he’ll be trapped in the building.
“I figure I’d throw myself out of my fourth-floor window. It’s a quicker way to go than burning alive,” he says.
But fires aren’t Lambert’s only concern.
“Another serious problem is secondhand smoke. It permeates through the hallways. Little kids visiting their elderly relatives have to breath it in. I have to breath it in.”
Baum repeats what many consider common knowledge, that secondhand smoke creates adverse health impacts for children, the elderly, and those with chronic diseases. According to research, the health impacts are more evident in people who reside in multifamily buildings, where reports indicate a high incidence of asthma and other breathing problems in children.
Baum also has data on fires. In 2005 through 2009, smokers caused 67 fires in multifamily dwelling units in the county, resulting in more than a million dollars in damages.
Luque, the fire department spokesperson, states that smoking materials are one of the three leading causes of structural fires in San Diego.
Despite this evidence, Baum has found that it is “virtually impossible” to persuade all landlords to ban smoking in their complexes.
“Voluntary policies were ineffective,” she says. “It means they would have to stand up on their own. Vacancy rates would be impacted. It was extremely difficult.”
In 2009, coordinators for the San Diego Smoke-Free Project began to lobby city councilmembers to enact a ban on smoking in multiunit complexes. That appears to be just as impossible as a voluntary ban.
Project representatives gave a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, and Baum says that members, including committee chair Marti Emerald, showed some support. But the committee expressed concern about the legality of a nonsmoking ordinance.
The committee requested that members of San Diego’s American Lung Association, Social Advocates for Youth, the San Diego Housing Federation, and San Diego County Apartment Association form a working group to come up with ideas for an ordinance.
“People were a little nervous about displacing smokers,” says Baum of the working group. “The people on the other side were not going to budge. So we drafted an ordinance that would declare smoking in multiunit apartment buildings a nuisance.”
In January 2010, the group submitted the draft ordinance to Councilmember Emerald. The group did not receive a response. In December 2010, the proposed law was resubmitted, and the working group encouraged Emerald to docket the issue.
“The nuisance ordinance was supposed to go to the city attorney to help revamp it,” says Baum. “It has stalled at Marti Emerald’s office. We have emailed and prodded. The City needs to do something — people are getting evicted — but the City of San Diego is not budging.”
Alan Pentico, director of public affairs for the San Diego County Apartment Association, was a member of the working group. He opposes an all-out ban. “Some people think this would be simple and straightforward, but the fact is, it is the exact opposite. People use smoking bans in restaurants and hotels as examples of how this could work, but people don’t live in restaurants, and there is a high turnover rate in hotels.”
Pentico feels an ordinance would be difficult to implement and enforce and that it would be financially burdensome to property owners.
Councilmember Emerald has many of the same concerns.
Emerald says the ordinance stalled because of questions about the legality of a ban. “There is evidence that children who live in apartment buildings where smokers are around suffer more from asthma and other lung disorders. I think that’s real. But where do the smokers’ rights begin, and where do they end?” asked Emerald during a December 14 phone interview.
One possibility, says Emerald, might be to designate smoking areas in affordable-housing buildings. However, Emerald considers a ban an invasion of privacy.
“In the privacy of your own home, don’t you have the right to light up a cigarette if you want?”
Baum disagrees. “Everyone speaks of the smoker’s rights, but what about the rights of the nonsmoker? What about our right to breathe clean air?”