Homes face possible smoking ban

The Greater Vancouver Housing Corporation is moving cautiously to designate nonsmoking rental accommodations in its properties in the absence of a law against smoking in multi-unit residential buildings.

A wholly owned subsidiary of Metro Vancouver, the GVHC launched a pilot program last year in one of its properties, the 86-unit Heather Place at West 13th Avenue and Willow Street, near Vancouver General Hospital. According to regional housing manager Don Littleford, this involved declaring certain portions of Heather Place smoke-free. The agency also drew up a nonsmoking tenancy agreement, although this applies only to new tenants, requiring that they, their family members, and guests do not to light up in their apartments and on the grounds of the property.

Existing tenants were also surveyed, and Littleford recalled that several stated that they want clean air. But what surprised the housing official was the residents’ response when the GVHC asked them to voluntarily sign an amendment to their tenancy contracts.

“We couldn’t get anybody to sign,” Littleford told the Georgia Straight. “Now, that’s just perhaps an indication that people don’t want to restrict their guests or other family members. They just want the flexibility. They weren’t just comfortable binding themselves contractually to nonsmoking. Even for nonsmokers, they don’t seem to really want to push as fast we thought they would for clean air. That’s one lesson learned.”

With no law against smoking in private homes, smokers in Heather Place can’t be evicted, even though the buildings where their apartments are located have been declared nonsmoking areas by the GVHC. “We have to be careful that we don’t trample on anybody’s existing rights,” Littleford said.

The GVHC owns and operates more than 50 properties in the Lower Mainland, representing about 3,500 rental units for low- and moderate-income families, the official noted. There are some 10,000 residents in these complexes.

According to Littleford, the company will replicate its Heather Place pilot program in two other rental complexes this year. “We haven’t opened it up for others yet because it’s important to do this on the basis of trying it out on one place first,” he said.

A long-time Heather Place tenant filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal against the GVHC , Metro Vancouver, and other provincial-government agencies after her demand for smoke-free housing wasn’t met.

Sheila Abraham has lived in the property since 1995, and she suffers from various disabilities. Another tenant—a smoker—moved into a suite below Abraham more than a year later. In 2006, Abraham was diagnosed with hyper-reactive airway disease, which is caused and worsened by secondhand smoke, according to a preliminary decision rendered by tribunal member Marlene Tyshynski.

In the ruling dated February 1, Tyshynski decided to conduct a full hearing of Abraham’s complaint.

Antismoking advocates like Errol Povah, president of Airspace Action on Smoking and Health, have been lobbying for greater restrictions on smoking, including a ban on it in all indoor spaces. In an interview with the Straight in August last year, Povah said that a number of private condominium- and property-management companies have taken the lead by requiring tenants to sign smoke-free contracts.

On March 31, new provincial health regulations—including a ban on smoking in all indoor public spaces and workplaces and restrictions on the promotion and sale of tobacco products—will take effect. The regulations also prohibit smoking within three metres of public and workplace doorways, open windows, or air intakes. However, the rules don’t proscribe smoking in private residences.

“We’re trying to find a model where we’re not forcing anybody to comply”¦so that people will willingly make changes or accommodate others,” North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto told the Straight.

Mussatto is a member of the Metro Vancouver board and the vice president of the GVHC. He noted that unless smoking inside homes is banned, the agency can only go as far as putting nonsmokers in nonsmoking units. “That has been a real challenge for us,” Mussatto said.