Neighbours' smoke a hot issue for tenants
Toronto woman seeks compensation after moving to escape neighbour's noxious cigarette fumes February 7, 2009 Rob Ferguson QUEEN'S PARK BUREAU
Headaches. Hoarse, dry throat. Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Rapid heartbeat.
These were the symptoms teacher Linda Fox had in her third-floor apartment on Davenport Rd. after a heavy smoker moved in below last August and dangerous fumes began seeping upward.
"One of my neighbours said it was like being in a stale bar after people were in there smoking all night," says Fox, who suffers from scleroderma, an auto-immune disease she says was made worse by second-hand smoke.
Within seven weeks, she'd had enough and went to stay with a friend. A week ago, she moved out of her home of 10 years into a new unit in a smoke-free building.
"It's really hard to find somewhere they can really guarantee it," says Fox, a teacher of English as a second language for the Toronto District School Board.
Anti-smoking activists say her experience points to the need for the Ontario government to bolster protections for residents of multi-unit buildings who find themselves in similar situations.
"Anybody who tries to do anything about this just runs into a brick wall," says Michael Perley of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, who is calling for the government to create a "one stop-shopping" information centre on the issue.
Tenants can, for example, file complaints with the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board on grounds that "reasonable enjoyment" of their living space is being compromised under protections in the Residential Tenancies Act.
But even in buildings designated in their leases as smoke-free, it is debatable how far landlords can go acting against tenants who break the rules and light up, acknowledges Housing Minister Jim Watson.
"I have asked my staff for some clarification on what is allowable under the law."
Watson said he's trying to find out "what options are available to us," but they will not include a law banning people from smoking in their own homes, says Margarett Best, minister of health promotion.
"We want to strike a balance between people's rights ... We do not intend to do that."
The landlord and tenant board does not keep statistics on second-hand smoke cases, but there has been at least one eviction ordered in a case where a tenant in a rented condo unit smoked contrary to the rules and was ordered to pay $10,000 in damages.
But in many cases, particularly in buildings not designated smoke-free, tenants are left to their own devices, which can include negotiating with smoking neighbours or with landlords or boards in co-op housing complexes, activists say.
"Unfortunately, you're often going to have to fight. It's not easy to ban people smoking in their units," says John Fraser, of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, a not-for-profit charity that helps people deal with housing issues from a human rights perspective. "You're in a situation of trying to balance people's rights."
Solutions can include trying to seal apartments from seeping fumes, or changing ventilation to create positive air pressure that keeps second-hand smoke out.
The managers of Fox's co-op apartment complex on Davenport Rd. maintain they did their best trying to seal her unit against fumes from below, but it was not enough for Fox, who is seeking compensation for her almost $600 a month in rent, moving expenses and smoky furniture that needs replacing.
"I honestly don't know what else I could have done for Linda," said manager Gloria Dynes. "There's no law in Ontario that we can kick someone out of their home because they're a smoker."
NDP justice critic Peter Kormos acknowledged the government must walk "a difficult and fine line" in any action it takes but must keep in mind the serious health dangers of second-hand smoke exposure.
The smokers' rights group MyChoice.ca considers any attempt to limit people from lighting up in their own homes or apartments "bullying," says spokesperson Arminda Mota in Montreal.
"I'm sorry, but I'm consuming a legal product. If someone says they're getting smoke from a neighbour, there's something wrong with that building and it has nothing to do with smoke. What about garlic smells? What about perfume?"
David Pylyp; Still unanswered is what happens when someone complains in a condo?