Phil McKenzie signed a yearlong lease but is moving out of his Chattanooga apartment four months early because he and his girlfriend just can't deal with the neighbors.
"People have been smoking in the other apartments and it seeps into our apartment," he said. "We've lived here for eight months but we just can't take it anymore." His girlfriend is asthmatic and also severely allergic to some types of smoke, he said. When complaints to management and even the police (not all the smoke was tobacco-based) didn't work, they decided they had to leave, McKenzie said.
They've already found another place to live -- and it's smoke-free.
"It's a deal breaker for us," McKenzie said.
Smoke-free apartment complexes like the one McKenzie plans to move into are becoming more common across the United States as a growing number of apartment owners ban tenants from lighting up in their units.
"It's definitely a nationwide trend," said Bronson Frick, associate director at Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. "There is a lot more awareness about the dangers of secondhand smoke inside the housing complexes and there is a growing action across the country to get the smoke outside."
And with about 1,400 new apartments in the pipeline for Chattanooga, it's a trend that could soon sweep through the Scenic City.
"Secondhand smoke is more than a nuisance, it is a health hazard," Frick said. "And in an apartment building, there is shared air. So unlike a neighbor playing drums downstairs at three in the morning, this can actually affect the health of tenants."
About 23 percent of Tennesseans smoke -- higher than the 18.4 percent of all Americans who smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With almost one-in-four potential tenants lighting up, some local complexes aren't ready to go totally smoke-free.
"We don't have a smoking policy," said Charity Facemire, property manager at Cross Creek Villas, which includes 232 units. "What someone does in their apartment is their private business so we don't have anything to do with that. Of course, if there is any type of illegal activity, that would be a different scenario."
But other complexes have made the switch. At the New Georgians Apartment Homes in Dalton, Ga., a non-smoking clause is included in all leases, property manager Karina Cervantes said. Part of the policy is driven by the complex's setup -- four units share a hallway and smoke spreads easily between units -- but part of it is just to keep costs down.
"When we go in after someone who smoked has moved out, the smoke will be on the walls, in the carpet, and it's hard to get out," she said.
It's more expensive to clean and turn around a smoker's apartment, the National Center for Healthy Housing reports. In a non-smoking unit, cleaning, paint and flooring costs average around $560, while a unit that housed a heavy smoker can cost as much as $3,500 to get ready for the next tenant, according to the center.
Local smoker Jon Walker is allowed to smoke in his apartment, but says he'd move out if the property decided to ban smoking.
"More or less, I'm paying rent, I should be able to exercise my freedom," he said. "I don't smoke a lot, but I like to have a cigar or two on my back porch."
But Walker is in the minority. As many as 78 percent of tenants would choose to live in a smoke-free complex, according to the National Center for Healthy Housing.
Robyn Ring, principal broker and owner River City Property Management, which manages about 1,500 rental units in the Chattanooga region, said she's seen that shift in attitudes toward smoking bans.
"It's becoming more commonplace and more acceptable for a smoker to be banned from something," she said.
But, as a third-party management company, enforcing non-smoking policies can be nearly impossible, she added.
"In our situation, if an owner says they don't want any smokers in their home, we can advertise that all day long, but something like that is going to be very hard to police and enforce," she said. "Legally we have to give the tenants 24-hour notice prior to inspecting their unit. In that amount of time, they can mask or hide the odors, so we may not be aware of it immediately."
One recourse for owners is to put the non-smoking policy in the lease, which allows the owner to charge the tenant for cleaning costs even after the tenant moves out, she said.
At The New Georgians, Cervantes will give a tenant a warning if she receive a complaint about smoking.
"That usually takes care of it," she said. "Because we can terminate a lease if they continue to smoke."
The trend toward smoke-free apartments is just another step in years of restrictions on where and when citizens can light up.
East Ridge banned tobacco on city property except in designated areas last year. Nationwide, almost 850 cities and counties have banned all smoking in city parks, according to a July list from the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.
The health danger presented by secondhand smoke is well-known. Breathing in secondhand smoke -- the smoke breathed out by a smoker -- can interfere with the normal functioning of the heart, blood and vascular systems, the CDC reports. About 46,000 nonsmokers die prematurely from heart disease because of secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.
But a new health danger is now emerging: thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is the smoke residue left behind on furniture, clothes, carpets and walls, Frick said.
A March study published in the journal Mutagenesis found that thirdhand smoke can damage DNA, and children are especially vulnerable. The residue builds up over time and resists normal cleaning like airing out a room or using a ventilation system, the Mayo Clinic reports.
But smoker Mike Grant said it's not about the health dangers, it's about freedom. He'd rather see a compromise between property managers and tenants than a total ban on smoking.
"It's kind of a drastic measure," said Mike Grant, who smokes a pack of cigarettes and three cigars a day. "The great thing about our country is that the Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness, but it doesn't tell us how to do it. We're free to make those choices."
Still, when it comes to smoking policies, there's an important distinction between renting and owning, said Paul Dominguez, a tobacconist at Burns Tobacconist in downtown Chattanooga.
"If you own an apartment complex, you have every right to set your standards," he said. "It's a fine line. I smoke and I live in an apartment complex, but I smoke on my patio, I smoke when I walk the dog. There are opportunities to do that."
As the smoking bans spread across the United States, Ring said she doesn't think the bans will deter many renters.
"Maybe," she said, "someone will get smart and say, 'We rent to smokers only.' "
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525.