Decision on human-rights complaint regarding smoking in nonprofit housing stalled

Smoke-free-housing advocate Rose Marie Borutski feels frustrated. Her situation hasn’t changed since she and other tenants in a publicly subsidized housing facility in Surrey filed a human-rights complaint more than two years ago.

They alleged that they have been discriminated against because their housing provider has failed to address their concerns—as seniors and people with disabilities—about being exposed to secondhand smoke from their neighbours.

“I’m still in the same place,” Borutski told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her apartment at Kiwanis Park Place.

The 58-year-old resident said she continues to breathe secondhand smoke, and she has no idea how or when the complaint before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal will be resolved.

Crescent Housing Society, which operates Kiwanis Park Place, declined the Straight’s request for comment.

“People living in nonprofit housing say that they feel stuck because they don’t have the money to move, and there’s nowhere better to move because other landlords are not moving on this as well,” Borutski said.

Crescent Housing Society rejected a settlement agreement that was drafted after a meeting between the parties on August 18 of this year. The proposed agreement provided several measures that would transform the 257-unit housing facility into a smoke-free place.

According to the document, tenants who are smokers would still be able to light up inside their suites. However, all units vacated in the future would be classified as smoke-free.

The housing provider would also implement a new policy banning smoking in all indoor and outdoor common areas, including the rooftop and courtyards. To monitor compliance, Crescent Housing Society would install cigarette-smoke detectors in elevators, hallways, and stairwells. It would also add 22 more security cameras, according to the proposed agreement.

In addition, the operator of Kiwanis Park Place would study the feasibility of moving smokers to a separate area. Units with smokers would be provided with air purifiers.

But according to an October 20, 2010, letter by the law firm representing Crescent Housing Society, the board of the housing provider found these terms “too far-reaching and not realistically achievable”.

The nonprofit offered its version of a settlement agreement, which included a no-smoking condition for new tenants. The document likewise stated that efforts would be made to create a nonsmoking floor for the complainants to occupy.

According to Borutski, the parties aren’t any closer to coming to an agreement. “We’ve been sitting in the water since August,” she said.

Sharon Hammond is aware of the dispute at Kiwanis Park Place. Hammond is the former coordinator of a project by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of B.C. and Yukon called Smoke-Free Housing B.C.

Government funding for the program ended last summer, but the foundation maintains a website to guide landlords, tenants, and strata corporations.

“Landlords can legally make a no-smoking policy just like they can make a no-pets policy,” Hammond told the Straight in a phone interview. “It can’t be retroactive. They have to grandfather existing residents. But all future tenancies, they can put a clause in there that says ”˜no smoking.’ It’s not discriminatory; it’s perfectly legal.”

An information paper put together by the Heart and Stroke Foundation indicates that multi-unit dwellings constitute almost 40 percent of all residences in the province.

The document also notes that a provincial B.C. Stats survey from February 2008 showed 34 percent of multi-unit-dwelling households in B.C. reported exposure to secondhand smoke from neighbouring units and balconies. “This means that over 200,000 B.C. families living in multi-unit dwellings are exposed to second-hand smoke while they are inside their own homes,” the paper states.

The survey also found that a majority of residents exposed to secondhand smoke do not complain to their landlords or property managers. However, 69 percent of respondents support the conversion of apartments and condos to smoke-free buildings.

“People are willing to pay more money for smoke-free housing,” Hammond noted. “There is demand out there.”

At Kiwanis Park Place, Borutski explained that her apartment is located on a wing that has 12 units, five of which are occupied by smokers. “Wherever air goes, smoke goes,” she said.

Borutski recalled that when she moved to her unit in July 2007, her lungs were healthy. Now she’s short of breath at times because she has asthma, a condition she blames on exposure to her neighbours’ secondhand smoke.

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6 Comments

glen p robbins

Dec 15, 2010 at 5:52pm

People should not have to suffer from someone else's smoking habit. It's subsidized housing - and should follow government policy.

But here's one issue to consider. Many people who are working to get off drugs and alcohol -- smoke - at the initial point of entry -- much - much the lesser of evils. On average, an alcoholic or drug addicted person - each person costs 'the system' about $3,000 per year per person.

About 1 in ten persons stays clean for a full year and thereafter the numbers for clean increase to something like 7 or 8 in ten - for some time thereafter. Many folks who get clean - who smoke - will work to clean up this last habit - filling the vacuum - after a couple of years.

Given that about 50,000 people go into some type of program at least once every year - well you can visual how the numbers might flow through subsidized housing. Though I can't imagine living with boozers and druggies who were smokers as well-if I were not inclined to those habits/illnesses. That would be an unhealthy nightmare.

IS there a way to accommodate some applicant smokers who are willing to sign and say they don't use drugs or alcohol--on the basis of no notice eviction if and when they do - and allow them to smoke somewhere designated--?

anon

Dec 15, 2010 at 9:00pm

if you blast loud music the police will show up at your door, so why are you allowed to slowly poison your neighbors with cigarettes?

glen p robbins

Dec 16, 2010 at 7:40am

anon - this is all true - but how do we manage this in the real world as far as this issue goes -- for me I'm trying to take policy - fair policy - against real issues and see how that works.

I don't smoke - don't like smoke - but there is alot going on in these subsidized properties - do we rule it hard and fast--as fair as it is on paper? Does it work. People who need to smoke - will smoke - it isn't like your renting a private residence.

How might a judge - deal with this- considering all of the factors--including children etc.

Rose Marie

Dec 16, 2010 at 2:15pm

As the group of complainants from Kiwanis Park Place who attended the August 18 Settlement Meeting that began at 9 AM and ended at 6:50 PM, we left the meeting completely relieved, satisfied and comfortable with the draft of the agreement, that was in large part presented to us point by point rather than any of us making demands. While there were items put forward that didn't have anything directly to do with our complaint, we did not rebuttal them given we had achieved what we wanted. I am more than happy to make all documents public, since this is to be a public process, one that is to take the spotlight off of Kiwanis Park Place and onto the rest of multi-unit dwellings in BC.
We were stunned and horrified when the board reneged ratifying it. After all, it was largely taken straight from the documents on the internet.

Under civil litigation, nuisance law, there is case law on how a judge has dealt with drifting second hand smoke in multi unit dwellings, with smokers not being allowed to smoke. As more of the current legal cases come to a conclusion, more case law will be available to support tenants asking for smoke-free housing. Most people do not entertain the idea of utilizing the legal procedures there to enforce the laws already established.
However, with the last round of Tobacco Reduction Strategy (2005-2009), the BC Government initiated the idea for smoke-free housing, providing landlords and owners with the legal documentation to voluntarily implement smoke-free housing. This happened across the provinces in Canada. Now non-smoking tenants know they can request smoke-free housing and expect it to be implemented.
You have to wonder why in BC there are 10 Human Rights Complaints brought forward, and several civil claims under Nuisance Tort. In comparison, landlords in other provinces have implemented smoke-free housing and now are at the forefront of best practices. Of the Human Rights Complaints and civil claims that settled, settlement occurred after new Boards and Strata Councils began their new terms of service, and had little to do with any legal procedures. So obstruction is coming from individuals on boards and strata councils, as compared to legal precedents, procedures. This is some of what I discuss in my public discussion forums, so tenants are better informed about what is actually going on, and what they can legitimately, legally request.

The next public discussion forum is Tuesday January 18, 2011, 6:30-8:30 at St. Paul's Hospital, Conference Room 6.

I have become a citizen journalist with my canadianpushforsmokefreehousing blogspot, reporting and discussing all the news that fit to print on the topic of smoke-free housing, 99% of which never makes the news.

Rose Marie

Dec 16, 2010 at 2:24pm

“People living in nonprofit housing say that they feel stuck because they don’t have the money to move, and there’s nowhere better to move because other landlords are not moving on this as well,” Borutski said.

In fact, from newspaper articles and my public discussion forums, tenants and condominium owners share the same stuckedness. While individuals in rent-geared-to-income non-profits and subsidized housing cannot easily move because of finances and because of subsidized housing restrictions, owners of condos find they cannot easily move either. They are unable to sell even if they want to with a smoker beside them. If they sell, they sell at a reduced rate and they have to sue the Strata Council. When they buy, they are now more aware, and seek out Strata Councils which have implemented by-laws for smoke-free condos.

glen p robbins

Dec 18, 2010 at 2:21pm

Rose Marie - Why do strata councils operate the way you assert they do?

Is it because they want the smokers rent money?