By TESSA ROY
In the first bill of his role as a legislator, Representative Evan Shanley seeks to act upon an issue initially raised by the Warwick City Council.
The “Multi-Unit Residence Safety Act,” which is co-sponsored by Representatives Joseph McNamara, Camille Vella-Wilkinson, David Bennett and Patricia Serpa, would “permit tenants of multi-unit residencies to terminate their lease agreements if no action is taken to remedy the presence of secondhand smoke.”
Shanley said he was interested in the subject after the City Council put forth a resolution asking for the passage of a bill prohibiting smoking in all multi-unit apartment complexes. He said he discovered after speaking with colleagues and constituents that such legislation would be too broad to pass, but he still wanted to find a way of providing relief. Shanley then remembered an account given at a City Council meeting by a constituent who said she was being negatively affected by secondhand smoke, but could not get out of her lease – Shanley said he also had a friend who experienced the same issue in a Providence apartment. The friend had health issues and had to move, which meant they had to pay off both the remainder of their old lease and the lease on a new apartment, he said.
Under the bill, tenants would provide written notice of secondhand smoke to their landlord, who then has 30 days to correct the issue before the lease termination is allowed.
The bill’s text cites the United States Surgeon General declaring no level of secondhand smoke as risk free, and says an estimated 50,000 nonsmokers die from secondhand smoke exposure in the U.S. each year. It also says studies have shown that smoke free air laws are help to decrease secondhand smoke exposure among nonsmokers, reduce heart attack and asthma hospitalizations, and encourage smokers to quit.
According to more studies cited in the bill text, secondhand smoke can drift from neighboring units, patios and balconies, and from outdoor common areas into nonsmokers’ units through open windows, open doors and shared ventilation systems. It can also creep in via doorways, wall cracks, openings for electrical wiring, light fixtures, plumbing, baseboards, and ductwork.
The bill defines “multi-unit residences” as properties containing two or more units, including but not limited to apartment buildings, condominium complexes, senior and assisted living facilities, and long-term health care facilities. It excludes certain hotels or motels, mobile home parks, campgrounds, marinas or ports, and single-family homes (with or without legal detached or attached in-laws or second units) not being used as child or health care facilities subject to licensing requirements.
Shanley said the bill could potentially be a catalyst for other legislation concerning smoking, but that for now, this is a first step. He said “99 percent” of the comments he has heard on the bill have been positive, but he still wants to hear thoughts from constituents.
“I do think we have to have input from the landlord community,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s the right bill and listen to everyone.”
In terms of how landlords can remedy problems with secondhand smoke, Shanley said improving filtration or notifying offending parties are good places to start. He hopes the act will incentivize landlords to further control smoking in their complexes, perhaps by banning it or providing designated smoking areas. Though many probably already do exercise this type of control, “not everyone is fortunate to live in a well run complex,” Shanley said.
If passed, the bill would go into effect upon passage and “apply to all leases entered into or renewed on or after the effective date of this act.” It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.