TenantRights.Net Essays

Safe Air Housing
The Right to Breathe!

Ashtray Apartments

Dying for Air in Low Income Housing

Oxygen delivery to chain smoker
at low income housing unit.

Every night and day, passive cigarette smoke is gradually killing thousands of low income residents in Denver just as it does in many other cities across America. This is one of the biggest "non-issues" in rental housing. It is shoved under the rug by and large because nobody believes they can do anything about it. And those who are most affected often don't care, or don't feel they have a right to modern standards of ventilation. Worst of all, nonsmokers are strangely, a tiny minority in low income and subsidized apartment buildings where smoking is the national pastime. Verily, smoking would appear to be the life calling of many dead-end low income tenants whose entire lives are spent gagging and coughing grotesquely, making sounds more reminiscent of death and dying than life and vitality. What is a poor nonsmoker to do?

In standard commercial housing, there is a body of legal precedent that is painfully and slowly becoming manifest in some sporadic corners of the USA. Notably, a web site has outlined some legal progress toward nonsmoker rights in Michigan. But here in Colorado, Tenant Rights Net has yet to uncover any civil action or cases where a tenant has successfully sued a landlord for the right to breathe.

Regardless of whatever is happening in standard rental housing, very low income people are a veritable class, a body of citizens, whose very lives are decimated by "ashtray apartment buildings" where "air apathy" prevails. Ashtray apartments have a character of their own, like a cheap saloon. Unfortunately, the diabolical tobacco industry has enjoyed its greatest success in addicting the poorest of the poor. Demographically, poor people demonstrate an exponentially greater likelihood of smoking heavily, smoking constantly, and generally commiting suicide by cigarette. Unfortunately this isn't just suicide, it's murder for poor nonsmokers who love life and air and and all the joy of breathing normally and living vital healthy lives. For such "air nuts" to be economically trapped in low income housing, can be like "night of the living ashtray" every night and day. Is it a preposterous notion that we should claim our right to breathe? The answer is yes and no.

Make no mistake, assorted housing authorities, HUD and even most nonprofit low income landlords do NOT want to hear any crap out of nonsmokers. Activism and litigation by nonsmokers has brought about ubiquitous fresh air rights in the workplace. This explains why the exterior of nearly every business entrance in America is literred with butt suckers. You can breathe when you walk into a mall, a grocer, or an office. Even prisons have outlawed smoking to ward off lawsuits. But the right to breathe has not been visibly endorsed as anything but a fanatical whim within the pitied classes of poor tenants. The poor are expected to take their blessings and be thankful they are not homeless.

There are perfectly good explanations why the low income housing infrastructure is stoically blind in their refusal to recognize fresh air tenant rights. The bottom line is cash flow. Starting at the top, HUD and the rest of the Federal Government have every reason to celebrate the smoke-diseased rental environments that they fund. Each time a housing-subsidized tenant dies from years of passive smoke inhalation - and they die by the thousands - Uncle Sam has shed off another benefit recipient. Thus no bureaucratic hack gives a flying ashtray whether zillions of stench-breathers might contract every respiratory disease in the book. In fact, low income chain smokers pay enough cigarette tax to buy a cigarette boat for every politician in Washington. Smoking is good for the budget, or so it seems until you start looking at the massive taxpayer burden caused by respiratory diseases in low income smokers alone. But the short and sweet of it is that HUD is not going to find it in their heart to regulate any right to breathe in the millions of ashtray apartments directly funded by HUD. Likewise, local housing authorities are run by bureaucrats whose goal is not to promote health in housing, they simply want to earn a paycheck by meeting budget limitations. Bringing buildings up to decent or even safe air standards is not the slightest on their minds.

Let there be no doubt that standards of safety for low income residents do not include the right to breathe safe air. There is no specific or quantifiable right to ventillation, no right against passive smoke exposure, no legally specific right to demand remedies, or at least Tenant Rights Net has yet to find them. Calls to HUD essentially confirmed that it is a non-issue. None of the very few Colorado-based nonsmoker rights groups have been able to indicate any specific legal precedents for air-inclined low income Colorado tenants. It does not appear that there are any state or Denver laws in support of nonsmoker tenant rights.

One specific well-known local nonprofit group was contacted about severe unsafe and unhealthy passive smoke related ventillation problems in a low income building they have set for remodelling with HUD funds. The letter exquisitely outlining the problem and all its consequences, addressed by a tenant to the director, was stonewalled. No respnse was returned except for a mention that it was "being looked into." Later the architect team revealed that no passive smoke abatement plan was being considered because it would cost too much.

In truth such logic is very shortsighted. Inadequate architectural remedies are directly responsible for the passing of smoke from unit to unit through housing structures, wall to floor gaps, plumbing holes, vanities and cabinets, and directly from lower to upper windows. Smoking related respiratory afflictions in low income people, from common colds to severe diseases, are a vast burden on America's public health system. There is every reason to believe that fresh air rights litigation will eventually force the entire low income housing community to comply with reasonable measures to protect the respiratory health of tenants. To do so voluntarily would be a legal showing of good faith.

Regardless of legal considerations it is shameful that low income housing of many kinds are commonly the pits where fresh air is concerned. Here in Denver there are subsidized and low income apartment buildings where the stench of cigarette smoke is ghastly powerful, so powerful it stings the eyes, burns the skin, makes your lungs feel like a forest fire. It can cause dizziness or knock you out like a narcotic. You may wake up each day more tired than when you went to bed. The stench is gut wrenching and persistent. You can actually feel the disease of the building becoming the disease of the tenant. It is an atrition imposed on the heart, the lungs, and the very soul of the tenant trying to live in such an environment. These are clearly indicators of systemic shortcomings where architectural remedies could easily save many lives and improve the health of thousands in Colorado alone.

The hellish unventilated environments of low income housing will not change until tenants demand improvements. Rest assured that federal and state and local governments have little if any measurable concern about the quality of health and life in low income housing. Likewise, nonprofit low income housing corporations are highly unlikely to do anything but stonewall the absurdity of left wing fresh air nuts.

Even local housing rights advocacy groups have pooh poohed dialogue about tenant fresh air rights. The right to fresh air in low income housing is essentially a pervasive non-issue, a fringe concern, a big nothing. Nobody cares. Everybody who suffers from lack of ventillation, does so privately, reinforced in the belief that they are alone, unable to achieve change, unable to afford a move to a normal middle class apartment with reasonable architectural standards assuring the absence of drifting smoke. Such is the gasping slumlord world of "ashtray apathy".

Low income nonsmoking tenants are the primary victims. But even smoking tenants endure massively magnified health risks from passive smoke. Low income housing is also the home for countless children who are victimized as well. What can be done about ashtray apathy in low income housing?

Activism is a principle whereby each isolated victim of a social shortcoming remains impotent until he becomes determined to defy his powerlessness in cooperation with heretofore unknown peers. Housing is by no means an industry of altruism. Tenants are expected to be seen and not heard crying out for fresh air. Bullshit! Those days will soon be over. If the low income housing community will not protect tenant air rights, they will eventually be confronted with litigation, bad publicity and possibly activism as well.

Tenant Rights Net wishes to hear from Colorado residents, especially in Denver, who have an interest in the issue of safe air housing.

See also "NonSmoker Rights" section for resources and tips.