My roommate and I have been plagued by secondhand smoke from a downstairs neighbor. His apartment is directly beneath us, and the floors in our century-old building are like Swiss cheese, so smoke from his place has been seeping up into ours. My roommate and I have long discussed the possibility of knocking on his door and confronting him — but I haven’t trusted myself to keep my cool and make a persuasive case. Finally, I decided to try the written word. After all, I am supposedly a professional writer. So recently I sent him a package of nicotine gum and nicotine patches along with the following cover letter. I will let the letter speak for itself (with minor edits to protect the privacy of my internet-shy roommate):
The smoke from your apartment has been getting into our apartment. It is now a health issue for us. We are therefore asking you to stop smoking in the building.
We understand that you won’t like being asked not to smoke in your apartment. It is your home, after all. But when the smoke from your apartment gets into our apartment, it becomes our problem too, because then we are not safe in our home.
The dangers of secondhand smoke are well documented. The smoke coming from your apartment is especially dangerous to us. One of us has a history of asthma going back to childhood. The other has survived his first heart attack.
When you light up a cigarette, we know immediately. We know which room of your apartment you are smoking in. We know whether you are smoking tobacco or weed. If it’s weed, we know the quality of the weed. If you think you can smoke without us noticing, don’t kid yourself. We always know and your smoke always harms us.
When we have our windows open, your smoke comes in through the windows. When we use our kitchen exhaust fan in the summer, your smoke comes in even faster because the fan pulls it in through the windows of the other rooms.
But even when the windows are closed for the winter, your smoke comes in through the cracks in our floors. It also travels up through the risers — the steam and radiator pipes — and even through the power outlets. We have tried packing and sealing the risers and the larger cracks but your smoke still gets in.
Once your smoke gets into our apartment, the particulates line the walls of our lungs, hearts, and blood vessels and stay there forever. They also get all over our floors, walls, and ceilings and become a permanent part of our rugs and furniture. These particulates are toxic and our apartment smells like an ashtray.
For a long time we have tried to manage the problem without bothering you. We bought two enormous Honeywell HEPA air filters (pictured at left). They cost $200 each, in addition to the cost of replacement filters and the $10/month they add to our power bill. They generate a huge amount of noise, making it hard to enjoy music or to hear the sound from the TV.
The machines are pretty large and move a lot of air. But even a HEPA filter cannot trap the fine (small) particles or gases in your smoke. When we run both filters in the same room at the same time, the particles still hang in the air and get all over everything and we are still at risk.
So we have no choice but to ask you to stop smoking in the building. To make it easier, we have bought you some nicotine gum and nicotine patches. We hope you will get in the habit of using them at home.
We cannot force you to do anything you don’t want to do — but we hope that appealing to your better nature will convince you to do the right thing. Thanks for helping us out on this.
I assembled the package with the letter, gum, and patches and handed it off to the doorman so that he could deliver it to the tenant. A day later I found a letter slipped under the door. While I have a right to quote my own writing, I would be a world-class stinker if I used my neighbor’s response without his knowledge or consent. So I will not publish it, quote it, or even give a detailed summary of the whole thing. Just the gist:
He confessed to being a light smoker, though he denied smoking weed. That was probably the legally prudent thing to say. He suggested some of the smoke may be coming from other apartments. (However, I should point out that smoke tends to rise because it is hot and that makes it less dense than the surrounding air. The cracks in our floors and around the risers make us most vulnerable to the apartment beneath ours.)
Most crucially, he wished us well with our health concerns and promised to try to smoke outside the building. It was, if not an ironclad commitment, at least a caring and constructive response and probably the best we could hope for.
Since then I’m glad to report that the amount of smoke entering our apartment from below has dropped considerably. Sometimes we have entire smoke-free days, even a few days in succession, and every one is a blessing. Then we don’t have to run the noisy air filters, or leave windows open in the dead of winter, or leave our door open a crack to vent secondhand smoke into the hallway. Our downstairs neighbor is an awesome person who responded to criticism from a stranger by at least starting to do the right thing.
In the best of all possible worlds, the City of New York — or better yet, the whole country — would ban smoking in multi-unit residential buildings. The city has in fact banned smoking in offices, restaurants, bars, and public housing, the latter of which was required to go smoke-free starting in July 2018 under a new policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, there are no laws or rules banning smoking in privately owned apartment buildings.
The landlord has the legal option of declaring ours a smoke-free building by adding a provision to leases, but like most landlords, he hasn’t done so. I might have another legal option under my existing lease, which in the State of New York includes a direct or implied warrant of habitability: the right to a safe and clean apartment that is fit for human habitability. However, becoming a litigious tenant would be expensive and ultimately self-defeating.
Still, look at this from my neighbor’s perspective. How could he do anything about his secondhand smoke if we failed to tell him it was a problem for us? We had to let him know. So, as the letter said, we appealed to his better nature.
I will minimize or avoid future communications with him because I don’t want to undermine the progress we’ve made. The poor guy probably already thinks I’m a nut. But we do live in greater harmony than we did before. And my neighbor’s compassionate response may add years to my life and that of my roommate. Thank heaven — and thank you, neighbor — for that.