California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act Can Help Tenants in Multiunit Housing Avoid Second- and Thirdhand Smoke

Exposure to second- and thirdhand smoke is toxic for human health. At the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center, we believe that everyone has the right to breathe clean air. Fortunately for Californians, there are some policies in place that can promote this goal. Through California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, tenants and healthcare providers can find support for nonsmokers living in multiunit housing to get relief from exposure to tobacco smoke.

For tenants

Do you live in California and have medical conditions made worse by from tobacco smoke intrusion? If you live in multiunit housing, you may be able to get help from California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) allows California residents with disabilities to request reasonable accommodation in order to have equal access and enjoyment in their home. For example, landlords that do not allow pets can provide a reasonable accommodation for tenants to have service animals.

The state of California defines disabilities as “conditions that limit a major life activity, including physical and mental disabilities, as well as medical conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS.” Major life activities are things that people do on a daily basis, such as walking, seeing, and breathing. While people don’t typically consider asthma and other respiratory conditions as disabilities, since tobacco smoke intrusion can make breathing hard, people with these conditions can qualify as having a disability under California’s FEHA.

Thus, people with asthma or other respiratory conditions can request reasonable accommodations in their multiunit housing if tobacco smoke intrusion makes their condition and symptoms worse.

To be “reasonable,” your accommodation request must not put excessive burden or cost on your landlord. For example, asking for another tenant who smokes to be evicted is not reasonable, but asking to move to another unit farther away from that tenant is. Other potential solutions include asking your landlord to ban smoking in common areas of the building, ban smoking in the units with which you share a ventilation system, or allow you to break your lease and move out with no penalty.

If you would like to request accommodation, the first place to start is your local nonprofit fair housing council. They can help you with any step in this process. See a list of California-based councils complied by ChangeLab Solutions here.

To request reasonable accommodation, you will need to send three documents to your property owner and property manager. Send everything together and keep a copy for your own records:

  1. A demand letter describing your accommodation request, a description of your physical condition, and an explanation that your landlord’s legal responsibility to address your request
  2. A log of each time tobacco smoke drifts into your home and how the smoke intrusion worsens your symptoms (include this with your demand letter)
  3. A doctor’s note written by a medical professional explaining what condition you have, how tobacco smoke intrusion worsens your condition, and how your proposed request could improve it

Check out samples of these letters from ChangeLab Solutions here.

Ideally, your landlord will accept the request. If it is denied, you have one year to file a complaint with California’s Civil Rights Department. You have two years after the denied request to file a lawsuit.

For healthcare providers

Do you have a patient suffering from second- or thirdhand smoke in their multiunit housing?

Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, tenants have the right to request reasonable accommodations if infiltrating tobacco smoke is making an existing health condition worse (i.e., symptoms are affecting their day-to-day life, such as respiratory conditions impacting their ability to breathe).

To make the accommodation request, a tenant must supply their landlord with a demand letter detailing their request, a log that documents the occurrence of smoke intrusion and their symptoms, and a note from a healthcare provider documenting their disability.

The healthcare provider’s note should explain three things:

  1. Your patient’s condition and related limitations, especially as related to respiratory function
  2. How second- and thirdhand smoke pollutants from tobacco smoke intrusion contribute to increased symptoms
  3. How your patient’s proposed accommodation would alleviate these symptoms

Check out a sample doctor’s note from ChangeLab Solutions here.

Some of your patients may already know about California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and may approach you asking for a note. Others may not know that this option is available to them. If you have a patient experiencing health issues because of tobacco smoke intrusion in their multiunit home, let them know their options under this act and offer to write them a note to include in their request for accommodation.

Sources:

Discrimination Laws Regarding People with Disabilities [Internet]. Civil Rights Department State of California; 2023 [cited 2023 Oct. 16]. Available from: https://calcivilrights.ca.gov/peoplewithdisabilities/.

Housing Discrimination [Internet]. Civil Rights Department State of California; 2023 [cited 2023 Oct. 16]. Available from: https://calcivilrights.ca.gov/housing/#faq

How Disability Laws Can Help Tenants Suffering from Drifting Tobacco Smoke [Internet]. ChangeLab Solutions; 2023 June 9 [cited 2023 Oct. 16]. Available from: https://www.changelabsolutions.org/product/how-disability-laws-can-help-tenants-suffering-drifting-tobacco-smoke.

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