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Is Smoke-Free the New Amenity?

Kaya Laterman in Building Operations on March 24, 2017


Queens Big Ban

Board member Phyllis Goldstein, who helped pass a smoking ban at the North Shore Towers co-op in Queens (photo by Danielle Finkelstein)

March 24, 2017

Led by board member Phyllis Goldstein, a team of volunteers worked with nearly military precision to get out the shareholder vote and win passage of a smoking ban inside all three towers at the sprawling 1,844-unit North Shore Towers and Country Club co-op in Queens. It became the largest co-op in the city to ban smoking.

“The momentum has definitely shifted,” says Joel Bhuiyan, a Queens coordinator at NYC Smoke-Free, a program run by the nonprofit group Public Health Solutions. Since 2010, the group has helped more than 10,000 apartments in the city become smoke-free – 6,500 of them in the last two years. “You now see apartments advertised as ‘smoke-free,’ so it’s an amenity. It’s what people seek.”

The concerted effort by the North Shore Towers board is a great example for other large buildings contemplating a smoking ban, Bhuiyan says – especially if the board is fearful of a backlash from smokers. In fact, it might be harder for smaller buildings to gain consensus if they don’t have a core group of committed people pushing the issue. “The dynamic of the building really comes into play,” he adds.

As the board president of a 20-unit co-op in Jackson Heights, Queens, Raghuram Krishnamachari knows this all too well. Although Krishnamachari thinks that most shareholders in his building would favor a smoking ban, he’s not sure a measure would pass since he expects pushback from the residents he counts as smokers. Coupled with those who may not cast a vote either way, voter turnout would be tough to predict, he says.

The issue arose in Krishnamachari’s building when a resident, who was pregnant at the time, complained about the smoke coming into her apartment from her downstairs neighbor, who happened to be the president. When Krishnamachari took over as president soon after, the board sought advice from a lawyer, a contractor, and a forensic architecture and engineering firm to see if they could stop the smoke from drifting into other units.

After tests were run, two units were asked to spend about $2,000 each, while a third was asked to chip in $300 to seal up holes and crevices. After two rounds of construction, all three shareholders say they are happy with the work and agree that their air quality has vastly improved. That said, it did not stop all the smoke from seeping into their homes.

“It’s difficult when you’re dealing with a building that’s 100 years old,” Krishnamachari concedes.

He started the conversation about a smoking ban with shareholders last year and invited NYC Smoke-Free to give a presentation. Besides the health benefits, what also piqued shareholder interest was the fact that some insurance companies offer discounts on property casualty insurance for smoke-free buildings, coupled with the prospect that a ban could prevent warranty-of-habitability lawsuits. The conversation continues.
One big question remains: how can a board or management company enforce a smoking ban?

Errol Brett, the attorney for North Shore Towers, says any shareholder violating the smoking ban will first get a warning letter from the board. If that doesn’t stop the smoking, the offender will be brought to court so a judge can grant an injunction. If a further step is necessary, Brett says he would try to punish the tenant for contempt of court.

“We’re not trying to evict the tenant,” but trying to stop him or her from breaking the proprietary lease, Brett says, noting that testimony by neighbors or building personnel can be used as evidence.

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