Weather Forecast


Smoke free housing gains ground

Maria Lockwood


A statewide initiative encouraging landlords to make the switch to smoke-free housing is seeing local success. The newest recruit is the Sawyer County Housing Authority, which went smoke-free in 48 multi-family apartments last month. It all started when the housing authority applied for a tobacco program grant in conjunction with the Sawyer County Health Department. They didn’t get the funding, but they did get an education.

“Applying for the grant we became aware of the problems associated with second hand smoke in rental units,” said Sheila Young, Sawyer County Housing Authority executive director. “There is a financial benefit to going smoke free as well because of the cost of apartment turnover. We are also aware of other housing authorities going smoke free so the idea wasn’t such a far reach for us.”

She brought the idea up to the board of commissioners, thinking they could try it at one 10-unit complex to test the waters. Board members opted to go with all 48. They started the process last fall, giving renters time to adjust to the situation. Forms, letters and other materials from the Clear Gains program helped make that transition easier.

“As for feedback, there hasn’t been a lot from the tenants,” Young said. “I believe many of our young families are aware of the dangers of second hand smoke and smoke outside much of the time anyway. The ‘no smoking in the apartment’ was added to the house rules section of the lease agreement so if tenants do not comply they essentially are violating house rules and will be handled such as any other house rule.”

When Catholic Charities made the switch to smoke-free housing in most of the 500 housing units it manages in 2008, there was some vocal opposition.

“We lost some people,” said Catholic Charities Housing Director Gary Valley. “Some were angry.” Even some non-smokers were angry at what they perceived as a violation of rights. Over time, that is changing.

“As we’re going along, more people are telling us it’s one of the things they like,” Valley said. People with breathing-related health issues are glad of the policy, he said, and add smoke-free to what they look for in an apartment.

There is no legal right to smoke in the state or the nation.

“Smoking and smokers are not a protected class,” said Cassie Grubbe, program manager with the American Lung Association. “It’s not illegal to implement a (no smoking) policy.” If you can adopt a no-pet policy, she said, you can adopt a smoke-free policy.

Wisconsin law forbids smoking in public places, from hospitals and schools to restaurants and bars. While a man’s apartment may be his castle, up to 60 percent of the air leaving his realm could end up in an adjacent apartment. Secondhand smoke contains about 70 substances known to cause cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even brief exposure can be dangerous. Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to protect fully nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure, according to the centers.

Health benefits were the No. 1 reason Catholic Charities made the move to smoke-free, Valley said. Another factor was cost. It can cost more than twice as much to clean out a smoking unit as it does for a non-smoking unit, according to Clear Gains. Instead of just washing down walls, carpets and windowsills, they may need to be replaced.

“Anything porous is going to be soaking in chemicals from smoking,” Grubbe said.

Over the past year, Ashland Housing Authority has made 48 units smoke free. One of the benefits has been surprising. Without secondhand smoke as a trigger, Ashland Housing Authority Executive Director Denise Lutz reported, some tenants have quit smoking since their buildings have gone smoke-free.

Both Lutz and Young utilized information and assistance from Clear Gains. The program provides resources, materials and guidance.

“You don’t have to do it alone,” Grubbe said.

Anyone interested in making the move to smoke-free housing can contact Grubbe at 218-726-4721 or look up Clear Gains online at The website even includes a list of smoke-free units available.