Since When is it MY Job to Ensure my Tenants Have a Healthy Lifestyle?

If it seems like forever since you saw a blog post here, well I can assure you it has felt like forever.  I have gone through some changes, professionally and personally, that has got me to spend less time on this blog and more time on things that are more relevant to me personally.  I feel bad that I have not provided new resources for information for landlords and tenants, but I do look at the web stats for this blog now and then, and I still see that it is used as a reference a few times a day.

So… what has gotten me riled up to again come to typing up and posting my thoughts?

What else, a MASSIVE waste of my tax-payer dollars.

Let me back up a little bit.  Apparantly, the federal government (through the Center for Disease Control) has established grants to help educate people about better living, better food, excersing more, stopping smoking, etc.  The concept is that if we, as Americans, ate better and excersized more and smoked less, we would be more healthy.  Okay, I won’t dispute that.  Apparantly, some numbers people did some research (or made up some facts, either way it doesn’t matter) and learned that Spending money on encouraging people to me more healthy is a wise investment because if we were more healthy, certain government costs on health care would be less.  Again, I can buy that logic.

So, based on this logic, MILLIONS of dollars are being given out to promote healthier living with key focuses on the three areas of better diet, more excersize, and less smoking.  Here in Wisconsin, an agency that calls itself “Transform Wisconsin” has received $6.6 Million dollars of this money.  Various agencies in Wisconsin were able to apply for that $6.6 million and this week, over 30 different agencies made the cut.

By the way, I have been having a heck of a hard time getting more information on exactly what 30 agencies got these awards and for what.  This is annoying.  I have been able to find many news sources that indicate that “Transforming Wisconsin is distributing $6.6 million in federal grants to 30 different programs in 25 counties.”

I learned about this whole thing when someone from Wisconsin Public Radio contacted the Wisconsin Apartment Association for information on a story they were doing.  Here is where my understanding of this little folly of spending my tax money on things start to make less and less sense.  Why would the Wisconsin Apartment Association care about this $6.6 million in money to promote healthy living?

Well… it turns out that because the government has been unsuccessful in convincing people that smoking is a bad idea, they have decided they are going to have landlords do their work for them.

Remember when I mentioned the anti-smoking focus?  Well that money isn’t for cessation programs or smoker education or teen smoking reduction.

Nope, that would go to spend money directly at the people who can use it.  And as we all know, that is NOT the government’s way.  Instead, the anti-smoking part of these grants are to educate and encourage landlords to make multi-unit apartment buildings smoke free.  That’s right folks, instead of getting people to stop smoking, they are going to try to get landlords to get people to stop smoking.

According to the article that Wisconsin Public Radio did, “Eight anti-smoking grants were distributed. One of them, in Outagamie County, amounts to $160,000 to encourage landlords to turn their buildings smoke free.”  So, of the 30 grants totalling $6.6 million, I know the amount and location of one of them.  And, I know that a total of 8 of the thirty were aimed at smoking-tollerant landlords.  Needless to say, I was hoping by doing a quick google search I could find the press release that listed the amounts and locations of all of these grants, but that was not to be.

After a half hour, I found a number of press releases from various agencies to say that they got some money.  I was able to determine that all of the anti-smoking grants were $160,000.  In addition to the one that went to Outagamie County, I was able to learn that more of these $160,000 checks went to Tobacco Free Columbia/Dane County, Five Counties for Tobacco Free Living headquartered in Fond du Lac County and Focus On Community/Racine County Youth Coalition.  Eight grants at $160,000 each comes out to over $1 1/4 Million to specifically focus on landlords allowing smoking.  There were other grants awarded for $460,000 to programs that were going to address all three of the issues, including smoking.

Marathon County was one of these recipients, so I am eagerly awaiting my phone call telling me how to tell my tenants how to live.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a fan of smoking, never have been, have never even tried smoking once.  I grew up around smokers and can’t stand it.

I also would LOVE to be able to make all of my rental properties non-smoking.  It would reduce the amount of damage that happens, it would make cleaning apartments easier, I would not have to paint them as often.  I have one apartment that the smoker left 5 months ago, I have repainted twice, put in new carpet and pad, sent in two different cleaning crews, and still can’t figure out how to get rid of that odor.  So, trust me… the reason why I don’t have non-smoking units has NOTHING to do with me not wanting them.

Unlike the government who can just magically make $6.6 million dollars appear, I have to use real world considerations when establishing a policy like that.  There are three fundamental reasons why my money spent to convince me to ban smoking is going to be money flushed right down the toilet.

Problem 1 is straight economic, supply and demand. 

Establishing this policy will limit the market on potential renters.  Although the percentage of the population that actually smokes does appear to be on a long-term downward trend, there are a few realities when looking at who are smokers.  First, there appears to be a coalation between income and cigarettes; basically, the farther down the socio-economic ladder you are, the more likely you are to be a smoker.  Also, there appears to be an age factor.  The younger you are, the more likely you are to be a smoker.  However, once you climb up that ladder, people tend to go withthe social norms of giving up that nasty habit.  The same is true as young people mature, the meet girls or guys, have kids… and smoking isgiven up as they mature.

Now lets look at the average renter.  There is an increasing population of what we landlords call “renters by choice”.  These are people who are financially stable enough to be home owners, but for whatever reason (flexibility, liking having someone else take care of repairs, cost, etc), they choose to instead rent.  Although that market is slowly growing, the vast majority of people who rent are renting because they have to.  They are young and either not stable enough to purchase a home.  Or they are lower on the economic ladder and don’t have the resources.  So… when we look at the people most likely to be smokers, that is the same pool of people who are most likely to be renters.  That is not opinion, that is statistical fact.

As I said before, I would love to make my units non-smoking.  And, there are a number of landlords whose units are non-smoking.  But, any time you establish a policy that alienates you from potential customers, you need to do so with caution.  There is no doubt that by establishing non-smoking apartment buildings, you are going to attract non-smokers.  You can sometimes even charge a premium becuase non-smokers are willing to pay more to be away from smokers (and non-smokers have excess money that wasn’t spent on cigarettes to spend).  However, you at the same time are pushing people who at the very least want to be able to smoke in their home away.  (Even in smoking buildings, no smoking is allowed in common areas like halls and laundry rooms.)

Most landlords have determined that the economic benefit of being a preferred provider of services for non-smokers does not justify alienating such a large segment of the potential applicant pool.  A unit is easier to rent if you don’t put that smoking restriction on it – plain and simple.

Problem 2 deals with practical enforcement.

A fundamental challenge that comes from renting out smoke-free apartments is that they are, in fact, smoke free.  If you rent some place because it is smoke free, and the neighbors downstairs smoke and the smoke comes out of their window and goes up and comes in your window – you will be not happy.  You would be not happy if the place allowed smoking, but you would be EVEN MORE not happy if the place doesn’t.  So, you call your landlord to report the smoking with the assumption that the landlord will make them stop.  God, I wish…

As a landlord, yes, I can ask them to stop smoking.  I can tell them to stop smoking.  But the way Wisconsin laws work, in many cases what I am going to be essentially telling the offending tenant is:  “STOP SMOKING – OR I WILL TELL YOU TO STOP AGAIN”.

What so many people just don’t realize is that when a tenant in a rental property is doing something that violates a lease agreement, there are only two things that a landlord can do about it.  1) They can threaten to evict the tenant; and 2) they can evict the tenant.  And of course, if you are not willing to actually do #2, #1 is off the table.  So, the only thing the landlord can do about a problem (assuming the landlord asks the smoker to stop and the smoker doesn’t) is to evict them.

If the tenant is in a period rental agreement (such as a month to month), this is not too hard to do.  You give the proper notice ending the month to month agreement.  So, if I give my tenant notice on July 15th I am ending their month to month, their contract ends and they need to be out by August 31st.  Six weeks of the non-smokers dealing with it, all the while I am the bad guy because I am not doing anything.  If they don’t leave, I can file for an eviction action and depending on the county and caseload, 5 to 9 weeks later they may be out.  And remember, that is the easy way because on a month-to-month, the landlord can end the rental agreement with 28 days written notice for no reason.

That is not the case if someone is under lease.  Okay, you can choose not to renew the lease when it is up, but I am sure the non-smoking tenants are going to be thrilled about patiently waiting 6, 7, 11 months until that happens.  Nope, to solve this problem NOW, eviction is the one and only tool that landlords have.

Evictions MUST go through court.  You, as a landlord can NEVER physically remove a tenant from the property, ONLY the sheriff can do this.  And, the sheriff can ONLY do this when they have a court order to do so (called a Writ).  And, this court order is issued by the judge as a result of an eviction court procedure.

So, to evict that smoker downstairs (assuming you have given them the proper warning notice and they have not complied), you will need to evict them.  Again, a process that can take a month or longer to do.  But, just cause you ask the judge to the evict the tenant does not mean that they will.  To get that eviction, a landlord has to convince the judge of two things:  1) the tenant breached the lease; AND 2) the breach was “material.”  In layman’s terms, the landlord will need to prove that the tenant was in fact smoking in a non-smoking building; and assuming you can prove that, you have to also convince the judge that this violation warrants making this person (or their entire family as the case may be) homeless.

As for the first point, I would love to know how to prove this person was smoking.  It is very unlikely that the tenant upstairs who filed the complaint is willing to come with you in court as a witness.

As for the second point, different circuit court jurisdications have different threshholds for what is worthy of evicting someone.  As a matter of fact, sometimes different judges in the same court jurisdication will have different standards of what is a “material” breach.  If the judge does not think that smoking in your own home is worthy of making your entire family homeless, well then the landlord has no way of enforcing their non-smoking rules.

Don’t think that could happen?  In talking with landlords all over the state, there are judges who don’t think that being behind in rent, if only one month behind, is grounds for eviction.  They will dismiss the case unless the tenant is a few months behind.

Problem 3 is a philosphical civil liberties issue.

I am a landlord.  I am not a parent.  I am not the “healthy living” police.

Last time I checked, smoking was legal.  (To me, if you really want to solve the problem, just make smoking illegal – period – and be done with it… but alas we don’t have time for rational solutions.)  I’m am sorry but I rent to adults.  I rent to adults capable of making their own decisions regarding their lifestyle and how healthy it is.

The government does not have the cahones to try to outlaw cigarettes, but they feel more than justified to spend over a million dollars to convince me that I should.  That is just wrong on so many levels!

So, I intrude on my tenant’s lives and tell them they cant smoke, and I do it for their own good, to be more healthy.  What’s next?  I will be “encouraged” to have a no-fried food policy?  (Deep fat fryer stains are also not fun to clean.)  Mandatory vegitable usage policies?

I don’t rent apartments or duplexes or houses… I rent HOMES!!!!  That is an important word… HOME… You should have the freedom to enjoy your home without the government, or the landlord, telling you what LEGAL activies you can and cannot do for your own health.

What a waste of a million bucks!!!!  SERIOUSLY!

About drrent

Wausau, Wisconsin Landlord, past president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, Host of the Dr Rent Radio Show on WNRB-LP, 93.3 FM, Wausau, WI
This entry was posted in Apartments, Evictions, Freedom, Grant, Housing Policy, Smoking Ban and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Since When is it MY Job to Ensure my Tenants Have a Healthy Lifestyle?

  1. Peek says:

    I have lived in my share of “Non smoking” places and always smoked. I am also a neat freak and clean everything weekly so my home never smelled like it and my walls stayed pristine. You cant prove it and I did have one nutball try, but he failed. You cant control people’s behavior in their own home, it will only drive people mad trying.

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