PORTLAND — When Rebecca Geary moved into a Gresham apartment, the cigarette smoke that somehow wafted into a bathroom from her neighbor downstairs was just an annoyance. Geary says she smoked many years ago "as a kid," but had grown so sensitive to the smell that she shut the door to that bathroom and only used another.
Soon after, doctors found cancer in one of Geary's lungs and had to remove it. With just one lung left, the traces of smoke still creeping into her apartment made it hard for Geary to breathe — and she had nine months left on her lease. Fortunately, city housing officials helped Geary get out of her lease and she found smoke-free housing with friends. In August, she'll graduate from nursing school and look for her own apartment again, one that bans any tenants from lighting up.
"I think it'll be easy to find one," she says.
Fueled by health, fire and financial concerns, more and more apartment and condo buildings ban smoking entirely. Portland has thousands of smoke-free units, including all public housing overseen by the Housing Authority of Portland. Other communities across Oregon and the nation are following suit, and the federal government is promoting the trend: Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development urged public housing authorities nationwide to ban smoking in at least some units. At least a dozen housing authorities in Oregon and southwest Washington now ban smoking in some or all of their units.
The smoking bans are generally popular. While many landlords fear the wrath of tenants who smoke, and some do complain, more tenants embrace smoking bans, according to surveys and the experience of property managers.
"I'm kind of surprised," said Don Skeen, deputy director of the Umatilla County Housing Authority, which is turning all of its units smoke-free. "I thought we'd have more resistance. But so far, even the smokers seem to be trying. I'm encouraged by it."
Starting in January, a state law required all landlords to disclose whether smoking is allowed in their property. No one counts how many decide to ban smoking. But many signs indicate that no smoking policies are on the rise.
Surveys of Portland-area renters show that 22 percent of landlords prohibited smoking inside units in 2009, up from 17 percent in 2006. The number of landlords who banned smoking in shared spaces, such as entryways, increased from 16 percent to 29 percent in the same span. In both years, about three-quarters of tenants said they prefer living in homes that ban smoking.
Tenants' interest in smoke-free housing helped persuade the Housing Authority of Portland to ban smoking in its roughly 6,335 units starting last August, said Katie Such, the authority's deputy executive director.
Such said the authority spent a lot of time discussing whether to ban smoking, including meetings where they heard from tenants who supported the ban and "a vocal minority of folks who were opposed." They weighed the hassle they would cause to addicted smokers against the health interests of everyone the smokers themselves, family, neighbors and housing authority staff who might be exposed to harmful smoke.
"For us, the driving factor was safety," Such said. "We have had fires within units where people fell asleep and the cigarette wasn't extinguished."
The Portland authority still lets people smoke on its property outdoors. And it helps smokers who want to stop, informing them that health insurers now must offer anti-smoking coverage or connecting them with resources such as the Oregon Quit Line (1-800-784-8669 in English, 1-877-266-3863 in Spanish).
While some tobacco users don't like bans in their rental units, many already go outside to smoke, said Diane Laughter, who works for the Oregon Public Health Division's Smokefree Housing Project. In some cases, she said, renters have even stopped smoking when landlords banned it.
"This helps people quit," she said. "It really does."
Laughter works with landlords statewide, convincing them they can and should curb smoking in their properties. She said many landlords have been interested for years but used to worry it was illegal. The increasing number of properties that have banned smoking in the past three years, combined with legal reassurance that there is no "right to smoke," has more landlords planning when — not if — to bar smoking, she said.
Banning smoking is not just an urban trend, Laughter said. Statewide surveys show 70 percent of renters want smoke-free housing. Even in public housing units, the support is more than 60 percent, she said.
Support from renters and financial concerns convinced Jackson County's housing authority to eliminate smoking in its roughly 1,000 units. The authority made its newest property smoke-free from the start, Director of Tenant Services Cara Carter said. That worked well, so the authority sent letters to tenants in six more properties last week, telling them smoking would be disallowed by Sept. 1. All the authority's units should be smoke-free by winter, Carter said.
"Our primary reason was maintenance costs," she said. "The cost of turning over a smoking unit is a couple of thousand dollars" for services, including repainting and carpet cleaning. "And typically our tenants don't have the money to pay us back."
The new state law that made landlords declare a smoking policy helped push Umatilla's housing authority to adopt a ban, Skeen said. On May 1, the authority made 166 units smoke-free; its 198 remaining units should follow suit in the next three months.
Skeen, who smoked for 30 years before quitting a few years ago, said he understands that the change might be hard for some. So the authority is "being gentle," not policing too aggressively at first while still taking the ban seriously.
"It's a process," he said. "You can't get too hardheaded or heavy-handed about it."
An increasing number of private landlords in Umatilla County also are banning smoking, said Janet Jones, a community health educator with Umatilla County Public Health.
"At least five or six of our larger complexes are smoke-free," Jones said. "And it's growing all the time."