Smoke-Free Housing Gains Momentum in Queens

WOODSIDE, NY – At a Community Board 2 meeting in September, members unanimously voted to pass a resolution asking the New York City Council to adopt legislation that would prohibit smoking in multi-family homes.

Carol Terrano, the former chairwoman of the Committee of Health and Human Services who had been working on the resolution for months, was relieved the resolution passed. “I was touched,” she said.

After the vote, Terrano turned to high-five Dr. Motri Savard, a family medicine doctor in Long Island City who worked alongside Terrano to prepare the resolution.

CB2’s vote makes it the tenth of 14 community boards in Queens to approve a measure indicating support for the smoking ban. Advocates say it’s the most strongly-worded version of the proposal to date. It requests City Hall to pass legislation, while other community boards, like CB7, only encouraged owners and landlords to create smoke-free housing units.

For those who manage apartments in Woodside, the resolution is a promising development, because it offers another means to deal with complaints about smoking, yet many agree a smoke-free housing law for current multi-family dwellings would be hard to enforce.

Bonnie Mutignani, the manager at Boulevard Gardens Housing Corp., deals with complaints about smoking on a monthly basis. She said she instructs complaining tenants to buy air purifiers or to open their windows, but she can’t stop tenants from smoking in their apartments.

“You really can’t do anything,” she said.

Mutignani agrees that a legal ban on smoking would serve as a deterrent for individuals wanting to enjoy a cigarette inside, but it would come with challenges. “It’s hard to prove someone has been smoking if they say they weren’t.”

While she says a law might be difficult to enforce, its provisions would make managing easier.

Other apartment managers were less optimistic.

Miguel Ibarra, the superintendent of a building on 60th and Roosevelt in Woodside, said that a law would have little impact on the smoking situation in his building, so he would not support it for that reason.

“I don’t think the law will change anything,” he said. In a building of 120 apartments, he estimated that 60 people smoke.

“You do whatever you’re going to do in your apartment. They don’t care,” Ibarra said, adding that he’s not concerned about second-hand smoke. “It’s killing me, but what are you gonna do?”

The prospect of smoke-free living in the city has been an idea in the mind of at least one Queens resident for decades. Phil Konigsberg, vice president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance in Bayside and a Community Board 7 member, was the first person in Queens to put together a resolution to ban smoking in apartments. He came up with the idea after hearing a similar resolution being passed in Staten Island. “If Staten Island can do it, why can’t Queens?” he said.

Konigsberg’s advocacy is deeply personal. Since being diagnosed with polio in 1953, his lung capacity has diminished over the years, requiring him to be on a respirator during the day and an oxygen tank at night.

“If someone smokes on your floor, you smoke,” Konigsberg said. “Luckily no one on my floor smokes.”

Many agree with Konigsberg. Miguel Herrera, 31, a deliveryman for Maxwell Furniture Co. of Woodside and a smoker himself, supports a smoking ban. Delivering and removing furniture to and from various apartments in Woodside, Herrera understands the impact smoking has on the air in apartments
“I try to pick up a piece of furniture, and I can’t get that deep breath before I lift because of the smoke,” he said.

He doesn’t smoke inside his house out of respect for his family. “I take a walk around the block, make sure everything’s out, brush my teeth and wash my hands,” he said.

Other community members like Steven Quinones, a barber at NY Cuts on Woodside Avenue, said that a smoking ban would trample individual rights.

“If you pay your rent, you should do what you please. It’s nobody’s business,” Quinones, 29, said.

In many cases, community board resolutions are symbolic. Still, according to Konigsberg, elected officials often will go with whatever the community board says about local issues. He expects City Hall to consider the resolution for legislative action by the end of this year.