The persistent hum of an air filter fills Jeff Tentinger’s living room all day, every day.
He and his wife, Robin, hoped the smell of cigarette smoke in their downtown St. Paul condo would go away after the condo board voted to ban smoking in the building. But then smokers and others sympathetic to them took over the board earlier this year and voted to rescind the ban before it could go into effect.
“It’s stunning to me that there’s a public vote to go smoking, in this day and age,” Tentinger said.
In St. Paul, Minneapolis and other metro cities, public smoking bans and city ordinances limiting who can buy tobacco, and where, are making it tougher to be a smoker. At Gallery Tower, the nearly 40-year-old building where Tentinger lives, the failed smoking ban remains a point of contention. It has spawned rumors that the board election was rigged, spurred tense interactions at board meetings and made some residents afraid of running into each other.
“We’re divided into parties now, and it’s so emotional,” said Bianca Fazio, a nonsmoker who’s lived in the building at 26 W. 10th St. since 2000.
It all comes down to a fundamental disagreement between nonsmokers who say secondhand smoke is destroying their quality of life and smokers who see their homes as the last place they’re allowed to puff.
“At the crux of this is basically a homeowners’ rights issue,” said Marge Romero, who’s lived at Gallery Tower for 19 years and smokes. “You ought to be able to live your life in the confines of your own home.”
In January 2016, the majority of Gallery Tower residents who responded to a building survey expressed concerns about smoking inside units. Some said they’d like to see an outright ban. Others said they’d be content if smoke just stopped seeping into their unit.
In the summer of 2017, the Gallery Tower board voted to prohibit smoking, starting the following April. The ban would apply to units and the balconies outside them.
“The majority of people in this building thought that was a big overreach,” Romero said.
She and two other residents who opposed the ban were elected to the board in January, and in February the board voted to rescind it, citing both the perceived overreach and legal questions about how such a ban could be implemented and enforced.
Other board members did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
Buildings going smoke-free
The freedom to light up in the Twin Cities is shrinking. A statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants took effect more than a decade ago. Several cities have raised the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21. Minneapolis and St. Paul have both passed restrictions on sales of flavored and menthol tobacco products, and St. Paul has limited the number of tobacco retail licenses in the city.
Multifamily buildings across Minnesota are increasingly going smoke-free, said Kara Skahen, program director of Live Smoke Free, a St. Paul-based organization that advocates for smoke-free housing and advises residents who want to implement nonsmoking policies in their buildings.
Condo buildings are about five years behind apartments in the trend toward nonsmoking, Skahen said. In 2010, she said, her program started tracking nonsmoking apartment buildings across the state, and found 50. Today, they know of more than 3,200.
Matt Drewes, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Community Associations Institute, said more condo buildings are deciding to go smoke-free — but not without strong opinions on both sides.
“A lot of communities have felt as though that is the direction the tide has turned, with more regulation of smoking in other locations and public buildings and in certain public spaces,” Drewes said. “And I suppose those who wish to maintain the ability to smoke in their units may feel like they are losing places where it’s safe for them to do that.”
In downtown St. Paul, smoking regulations vary from building to building. At the Airye condominium complex, a ban passed two years ago exempted current residents who smoked. At City Walk, smoking is allowed only inside units. At Market House, a ban that the condo association passed in 2006 prohibits smoking altogether.
The smell of cigarette smoke in a building or a unit can deter prospective buyers. Patrick Ruble, a real estate agent and manager at Coldwell Banker Burnet in St. Paul, said he hasn’t seen much of an uptick in condo buildings going nonsmoking — instead, he’s seen more buyers who don’t smoke.
“It’s always had an effect on buyers who are nonsmokers,” he said. “The nonsmoking pool of buyers has increased, for obvious reasons.”
‘I like where I live’
Fazio said she smelled tobacco smoke when she moved into her condo 18 years ago, but she didn’t think much of it. In the years since, though, the 82-year-old said she has developed health problems related to secondhand smoke, including shortness of breath, congestion, itchy eyes and throat irritation. If she had known this would happen, she said, she never would have moved to Gallery Tower.
“Hopefully before I die, this building will be smoke-free,” she said. “But who knows?”
Tentinger said he’s spent more than $8,000 on air purifiers, an air quality test and replacing the carpet in his condo with laminate flooring. He and a group of several other residents have continued to fight for a smoking ban in the building.
The condo board has convened a committee to examine the building’s shared ventilation system, but the anti-smoking residents are worried it won’t change anything.
For now, though, they have no plans to leave — despite the smoke.
“I don’t want to move,” Tentinger said. “I like where I live, other than that.”