How to force revolting neighbors to vent their apartment into the outdoors rather than the building, or force the landlord to clean the air up somehow?
December 18, 2007 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Renting in Baltimore, my lease expired a year ago and I am month to month. The things that live on the first floor do not work or leave their apartment but spend all day every day smoking cheap, foul tobacco. The smoke fills the stairwell and rises to the third floor and enters my apartment. It is revolting. I've written a formal complaint to the landlord once. Do I have any legal rights in this? I find the smell sickening, it gives me headaches, sinus problems, and watery eyes and I can't block it, the building is so old it creeps in no matter what I do, I've even taped the door shut. Which mostly works except that I do work during the day and can't tape it shut every morning. Besides, that's insane. For my second complaint I'd like some precedent or legal argument. If I could afford to move I'd be gone in a flash but I am penniless.

I've tried propping the front door open but the thing that makes the smell closes it and complains it is cold. If I had a gun there would be two homicides so it's a good thing I don't own or plan to acquire a weapon.

Short of murder or moving what can I do? Are there no laws governing air quality in multi dwelling properties?

Any Baltimore lawyers here? Any point in trying to find one that has a sliding scale?
posted by Grod to Law & Government (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Here's the rental law for Maryland.

Also, referring to your neighbors as "things" makes me believe you're not willing to speak to them, or your landlord (about the letter you sent, even), in a civil, adult manner. If I'm wrong about that, please do consider doing that first.
posted by minervous at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

it would be worthwhile and considerably cheaper than moving or taking legal action to check out some air purification systems
posted by estronaut at 2:16 PM on December 18, 2007

Most lease either contain or imply the concept of quiet enjoyment. That's probably your only angle.

Are they smoking Black and Milds? That seems to be the smoke of choice around here.
posted by electroboy at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2007

look at your lease. does it say anything about not being a nuisance to other tenants? if so, the "things" downstairs should have signed similar lease.

the smoke is a nuisance to you. therefore they're not abiding by the terms of their lease, and therefore the landlord should talk to them.

clearly this isn't working for you though.

i'd talk to your landlord again.

or, talk to the "things" downstairs and ask if they can smoke outside or get a fan in their place to blow the smoke out a cracked window.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2007

What do you hope to achieve?

"my lease expired a year ago and I am month to month"

By the aggressiveness with which you seem to approach this problem, my guess is that you are unaware that as a month to month tenant, in most states the landlord can ask you to move at any time with 30 days notice, whether you want to move or not, whether you can afford to move or not, whether your request is reasonable or not, or for any reason that happens to strike the landlord's fancy whatsoever. The landlord can ask you to move in 30 days because he doesn't like the color towels you chose, or because he prefers different toppings on his pizza than you. Or because you are being the squeaky wheel starting a fuss about tenants smoking in the apartment, whether or not there is any clean air act on point.

As a result, getting a lawyer, or even sending a strong letter filled to the brim with precedent or legal argument will result in your moving 30 days from date of letter.

Disclaimer: I know a little about NY property law, but nothing about MD or any City of Baltimore laws. This is a general answer that has not reviewed MD law on the issue, but uses the "majority view".

On preview: The lease is expired. I am fairly confident that even if LL is in violation of quiet enjoyment or some other covenant the LL may still terminate the tenancy on a month's notice. Unless you are paying REALLY high rent for the market, I would not expect the LL to take much trouble over this.
posted by bunnycup at 2:25 PM on December 18, 2007

Put a box fan in the window of your apartment pointed inward and positively pressurize it. Don't call your neighbors "things" and threaten to murder them. It makes you look like a dick.
posted by Megafly at 2:26 PM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Ugh. Of course I meant to say "As a result, getting a lawyer, or even sending a strong letter filled to the brim with precedent or legal argument will probably (or likely, or whatever) result in your moving 30 days from date of letter."
posted by bunnycup at 2:27 PM on December 18, 2007

Response by poster: bunnycup, that was pretty much what I thought, I'd hoped I was wrong. The rest of my reply is now irrelevant but I typed it so I'm damned well going to post it. If I'm aggressive it's because I've put up with this too long.

I am calling them things because I am being polite. I have explained to these entities how discomforting and unhealthy their habit is when one of them demand I not prop open the door, as I had been doing, because it made the heat come on. I asked the it to use a fan, it refused because it is winter. Which, I agree, is uncomfortable but better than feeling ill as soon as I walk in the door every evening and needing to pump cold, but fresh, air into my apartment to clear the fug a little. Every day. I was exceedingly civil in my letter, even referring to one by name, I don't remember the other one's name. They are excrement and when they inevitably die of emphysema or cancer I will celebrate without guilt or remorse. I was a smoker for 10 years. This is not a little irritation, this is pollution. When I smoked I did so outside or in a room with an exhaust fan, summer or winter, out of consideration. They smoke constantly, however, they appear to live to smoke. I don't want to talk to them again or any more than necessary and I am not willing to talk to the landlord face to face unless I'm in a courtroom because people terrify me.

The only air purification systems I've seen that are effective, quiet, and energy efficient cost $400 and up. I can't do more than $150 and if that includes a hidden energy cost of $30 or more dollars a month I can't afford it. A long term, cost effective solution I can afford, if I have any legal right to expect a comfortable, healthy environment in the space I am renting then I want to exercise those rights.
posted by Grod at 2:27 PM on December 18, 2007

Ozium is an easily obtainable product that comes in several scents and actually "eats" smoke, rather than just covering up the smell. Its a bacterial air sanitizer, and a bottle costs about $7. You only need to spray it for about a second to clear a whole room. Spray some in your hallway and your entryway when you get home and you shouldn't notice the smoke anymore.
posted by baphomet at 2:28 PM on December 18, 2007

I had to look into this lately because I am a landlord and one of tenants was getting irritated with a smoke smell.

Basically in no state that I found, was there a requirement for the landlord to put an end to smoking. In some states there is an ability for the landlord to require tenants not to smoke inside. That is it. So, if their lease doesn't say anything about it, you are out of luck legally. You could ask the landlord (I would not try to "force" anything if you want to stay), or buy some cheap air purifiers. Target has some now in the $30 dollar range that will clear a 10 x 12 room of tobacco smoke at a level of 70. I don't know what that level means, but its a standardized system created by the clean air folks. Put one in your bedroom and one in your kitchen or whatever.

You should probably just buy your own place and then you can not let anyone smoke there. Even smokers are people, even people who smoke in their place, people will always do things that irritate other people and if you live in close proximity to people, this will continue to happen.
posted by stormygrey at 2:55 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here is what the rate means.
posted by stormygrey at 3:05 PM on December 18, 2007

Megafly: Don't call your neighbors "things" and threaten to murder them. It makes you look like a dick.

Yeah. Right now you're definitely not eliciting the sympathy you may hope for.

Plus most people aren't stupid; if you don't even view them as humans, they can surely pick up on this and are probably far less likely to go out of their way to help you.
posted by loiseau at 3:13 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Previous similiar questions lead me to believe there's not much you can do to "force" them to change.

So your options are: Change your environment. Change your attitude. Or change your address.

P.S. I understand feeling frustrated and pissed off, but you sound misanthropic and hateful. If your usual M.O. with conflict is to treat the other person as no longer human and fantasize about murdering them, then I'm glad you're not my neighbor.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:19 PM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Listen to Megafly. If your apartment is positively pressurized using clean air from outside (doesn't even have to be particularly aggressively pressurized, either - operating the box fan on its lowest setting will still work), then the fug from the stairwell won't come in through the gaps around your front door.

The actual amount of cold air pushed into your place by the box fan will depend on how many gaps the air already inside can find to escape out of. If you deploy a bit of foam sealing tape and a bottom-of-door hinged sealing flap to minimize the front door gaps, make sure all your windows shut properly, and close any other vents etc., you shouldn't find that the pressurizing fan makes much difference to your heating costs.

Also, try operating a negative ion generator in the stairwell. These things cause a very gentle current of ionized air to move away from them. The ionized air transfers its charge to smoke particles, and makes them want to stick to whatever they touch. If you put an ionizer a couple of feet away from a grounded sheet of foil, and operate it in a smoky stairwell, you will find that the stairwell becomes less smoky and the foil becomes coated with unspeakably awful guck.

Best of luck. Living near chronic smokers is hard.
posted by flabdablet at 3:21 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Keep propping the door open if you need fresh air, no matter how many times they close it.
posted by oaf at 3:26 PM on December 18, 2007

Propping the common door open in any city (as Baltimore is) could be a pretty big security issue.
posted by stormygrey at 3:28 PM on December 18, 2007

I'm not sure there's anything Grod can do that won't get his lease ended as soon as possible, if the landlord doesn't like doing work.
posted by oaf at 3:36 PM on December 18, 2007

If you're only on the third floor, I'm not sure that I would want to prop your window open during the day when you're out of the house, even with a box fan filling the window; that gives an easy ingress to criminals. And in Baltimore, your risk would be higher than in many other cities.

Not only does this unsecure your apartment, it makes the whole building insecure, and if someone breaks into multiple units, you could well be liable.

You aren't too broke to move.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 3:51 PM on December 18, 2007

There are few things worse than virulent anti-smokers, but one of them is the complete dehumanization of the people you share space with. This will not end well, especially when this person starts putting their mind to the ingredients of tap water.
posted by rhizome at 5:05 PM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

You have plenty of my sympathy, for what that's worth. I've been driven to feeling homicidal by exactly the same kind of total swine as those you describe, and I don't think you're being any kind of dick. People with no respect for shared space should be forced to display some. Unfortunately, as you've found out, this is sometimes not possible.

You are going to need to fix this with technology, or move, unless you can successfully get these arseholes busted for drug possession: in my experience, non-emergent cave dwelling + persistent heavy smoking + complete indifference to needs of others (often =) smack.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 PM on December 18, 2007

I second the weatherstripping solution, since it's quite a step up in functionality from tape, and your tape idea seems to work decently, as you say.
posted by astrochimp at 6:27 PM on December 18, 2007

Response by poster: rhizome, I am, on the contrary, a virulent proponent of smokers' rights. I just returned from a bar filled with smoke -- nowhere near as thick as in my stairwell despite a good fifteen people smoking in a space little larger than my own -- and while there I even had a couple cigarettes. I abhor the upcoming ban on smoking in Baltimore: it will harm local businesses despite claims to the contrary, it will diminish the enjoyment of many, and it is not necessary. There are always places where smoking is minimal. But I choose, knowing what I will encounter, whether to go to a public or commercial place where smoking is permitted. In my home I have every right to choose whether the air I breathe will nourish or debilitate my mind and body. If any of you disagree then I urge you to consider your own humanity before attacking mine. If you find your stance defensible, speak on. I am always willing to reconsider my position and am open to rational persuasion despite the emotional strength of my current opinions.

I was, for ten years, an absurdly heavy smoker (over a pack a day) but through that entire time I made every effort to respect those around me. In my home I created a "smoking room" sealed from the rest of my apartment and the building and constantly cleared by a powerful exhaust fan. I had to wear a down filled jacket to enjoy a cigarette indoors during the winter months. I did this because I had and have no wish to harm or inconvenience another soul. At the sight of an infant or a jogger I extinguished my cigarette and held the smoke until they were out of range. Out of respect for the comfort and well being of others I consciously limited my own freedoms so as not to impose on their freedoms.

I have arrived at my current attitude by degrees.

I respect the sancticty of life and each individual's right to live their life in whatever manner they choose. I may not agree with you, to paraphrase Voltaire, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to freely believe as you do. If you act in a way which harms others, especially if I am among those others others (I am not perfect and survival of self, in everyday scenarios, comes first), then you lose all rights and give up your humanity; what makes one human is the ability to see through another's eyes, feel with another's heart, and think with another's mind; and then to see, feel, and think in sympathy and act accordingly. If you fail to exercise those faculties on my behalf you forfeit any right to expect me to exercise them on yours. I have more sympathy for the fish in the speaker currently on MeFi's front page than I do for these piles of shit. I assume they are mentally ill and have given extra leeway out of consideration -- otherwise I would have persued this while still under a lease and thus better protected -- but they lack the rudiments of empathy required to entitle them to expect me to exercise empathy on their behalf. If they cannot behave towards me as one enlightened and rational being should behave toward another then they are not enlightened or rational and do not warrant any similar consideration. Thus they are things. Sad, pathetic things in need of proper care, but things.

Dogs, cats, and mosquitoes are less offensive, for each acts according to its nature. Humans, by nature, are cruel, selfish, and malicious. Our humanity comes from our ability to act against our nature. Our better selves, as it were, our true and noble spirits, as some might have it, our redeeming feature is the conscious decision to act with compassion. My overriding curse is a too compassionate nature. Through that I have arrived at my current predicament where compassion is a madness and hatred a rational response.

I will kill a rabid dog, destroy a predatory cat, and poison a poisonous insect. If that insect, cat, or dog has harmed me I will derive satisfaction in removing their ability to further harm me. So, too, with people who have demonstrated towards me their inhumanity.

The form of the thing is not the thing.

In short: If a being persists in harming me and remains obstinately oblivious to the detrimental mental and emotional states of myself and others induced by its activities then it bars itself from any reciprocal consideration. I'm very, very, very drunk at the moment (which is abnormal for me -- I normally avoid excess of any kind -- but the selection was particularly fine this evening) but I think that makes sense. I hope.

I am, rhizome and all others who feel I am a dick (which, when called for, I can and will be), virulentally anti-invader. They have every right to smoke and to enjoy their addiction be it tobacco or any other drug provided their enjoyment does not negatively effect me in a place that I can, by all the rules of decency and tradition, consider sanctuary: my home.

In a bar, at a bus stop, or in their home they have the right to do whatever gives them pleasure provided that they do not impose on me (especially in my home) a harm I cannot escape through reasonable measures. Moving is not reasonable. But when their pleasure is my displeasure -- I have had sinus infections because of this smoke, I never had any problem like that prior to living here, I have woken gasping for breath and been told I look like shit when I did nothing the night before but lie down to sleep: I have suffered as a result of this pollution -- I am in the right in resenting their influence, despising them for inflicting it, and desiring its cessation by any means necessary.

Because of these people I have suffered and been diminished in a place where I should be safe from both degradation and suffering. If I call them things it is out of courtesy only and I envy you if you are able to object, with a clear conscience, to my choice of words.

These people, and yes they are people, although some of you (including those who privately messaged me) mistake my anger for a psychopathic disregard for my fellow beings rather than recognizing my justifiable fury -- for I have lived here two years, I have taped (think about it) the gaps in my door, I have positively pressurized my space and I have burned scented candles: I have exceeded all reasonable bounds of consideration, generosity, forgiveness, and Christian duty (though I am an atheist and have a carefully and rationally worked out ethical system far more rigorous than that of any received tradition), I have endured patiently and sympathetically long past the point where most people would react, and I would never harm another person even if I would celebrate their death -- and accuse me of dehumanizing them (which is absurd), deserve consideration: but so do I. I am fully aware of their humanity, their humanity and hence their obligation to act as rational and enlightened (as in reasoning, humanistic, idealistic) beings; but, because they don't, I despise them. Not, as a bigot hates, unreasoningly, but in an altogether more frightening (to those of you who have never been in my position) fashion: as one sentient being loathing another.

I do not seek sympathy, I seek solutions. Legal and ethical resolution to a real and damaging situation. Not criticism, although I accept it is merited from the evidence I provided, nor derision, but constructive suggestions. If no real solutions exist, fine. I'll make do. I'll kill myself before I kill someone else, so don't fret, but I want a reasonable, practical solution and cannot think of one and so I am asking you, dear readers, to strain your hearts and minds on my behalf. I am sorry if I have offended you with the strength of my emotions. Endure, for a time, this small slice of my life, and you might not be so quick to judge, endure my existence in its entirety and you may weep or you may laugh but you will not react with visceral reflexive attacks on me. Pity, disgust, or sympathy are acceptable. There is no justification for outrage because I cannot, in this forum, provide you with the details you need to see through my eyes, feel with my heart, or think with my mind. Either take my question and my attitude as justified and, from my perspective, serious, or move on.

Now if you'll excuse me I need to brew some coffee, I'm currently typing with my eyes shut because I can see two monitors, very disconcerting, I'm sure I'll regret my verbosity when I'm sober, but then again, I am my demons -- and so are you, and so goodnight.

On preview (eyes open) flabdablet, I appreciate your understanding though I regret our shared membership in this club of desperation and despair.
posted by Grod at 7:08 PM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Grod, I ask this gently: do you happen to be bipolar? I ask because you sound a lot like an ex-lover who was a rapid cycler. You sound a LOT like him when he would get off into a rage about something that was out of his control. There was no touching his fury. There was nothing you could say, you just had to wait. He would say things like that people who contradicted him were useless, worthless, inferior animals who he could just spit upon. In my view, it is not normal or healthy to become so enraged that you no longer see a person who you have an issue with as a human being but as "excrement". It is not normal to contemplate murdering people because of this. The way you are feeling and acting is way, way out of proportion to your problem and quite frankly it's kind of scary.

Even if not. My completely unsolicited advice is that you try whatever you can to use this as a learning experience. In life there are many things out of our control. This is particularly the case when you rent housing -- it's just not optional to accept others. I can't speak to the legalities, but in my experience in the cities I've rented in, the landlord decides whether or not their dwelling is smoke-free. If it's not stated in the lease that the building is smoke-free, then it's understood that the tenants can smoke. In a perfect world everyone would agree, but when they don't, in most cases compromise can be had. If compromises can't be made, you don't have an inherent right to control the other party. You can only control your own actions and viewpoint.

All that to say that barring legal recourse (and there seems to be none) and barring moving (which you've ruled out) you only have a couple of choices: block/diffuse the smoke best you can and broil in your anger, or block/diffuse the smoke the best you can and accept that you're sharing your environment with *human beings* who are different from you. Which you choose will have a pivotal effect on your happiness. Now commence telling me I'm useless and you're superior.
posted by loiseau at 7:49 PM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Loiseau, a completely reasonable stance and the one I took a year ago. I do not think you are useless and I have no way to judge which, if either, of us may be superior or in what areas of ability or accomplishment this superiority might manifest. I do know that you are not placing yourself fully in the scenario, not considering the time frame, not considering that I, while no genius, am intelligent, introspective, and compassionate and this fury is very much out of character but, because I can chart its growth, I can say with certainty it is not abnormal. Not, in short, willing to accept my interpretation -- normally a good thing. But when your goal supposedly is to be helpful extreme skepticism is more a hindrance than a help. I've done the same in other threads, though, so I don't resent you for it.

My current outrage stems from the following: the one method available to me to minimize the situation when it is at its worst is to prop the front door open for thirty minutes or so. Imagine a chimney with an ill-fitted flue. The smoke rises slowly unless there is a draft in the room, in which case it billows out. I want it to billow out into the drafty street. Since these people live on the first floor, have nothing better to do, and have the same lack of consideration you accuse me of they will close the door as soon as I have opened it. The situation is more than distasteful, it is the difference between waking up able to breathe clearly and waking up with a nose filled with yellow slime and a rasp in my chest. It is the difference between leaving for work with my clean clothes smelling of fabric softener and leaving with my clothes reeking of smoke. It is the difference between feeling (and potentially being) healthy, and feeling shitty while risking future health problems from constant exposure.

And the problem is a trivial one to solve. All that need happen is that they open a window and put a fan in that window and smoke near that fan. Which is what I did when I smoked and what any respectful person would do as a matter of course. While they have every right to poison themselves they have no right to poison me. It seems perfectly reasonable, when it comes down to a question of healthful and unhealthful pursuits of happiness, to rule in favor of health. Likewise, it seems perfectly reasonable economically, both in cost of repairs when these people do finally die or move and the very real fire hazards, to restrict somewhat their protracted suicide: these people are not all together all together and could easily burn the building to the ground. Is that risk not worse than my objections, no matter how strident, shrill, or obnoxious?

During the fall the female sits on the stoop, barefoot, in a cloud of smoke, and wearing a food covered shirt that says "stop the animal holocaust" while her three legged cat, which had cancer almost certainly as a direct result of her smoking, limps around the front yard and she reads from the bible. The male is worse. During the winter they sit indoors and fume literally as I am fuming figuratively, that is, prodigiously.

And no, I am not bi-polar. I've spent many years in pursuit of self knowledge, often with the aid of those competent to diagnose such a disorder, and none has ever suggested that my depression (which is irrelevant to the current topic) is anything other than regular old chronic depression.

I'm done now. I'll consider all insults, criticisms, and suggestions with an open mind, both those present and those that I might find waiting for me in the morning. I sincerely appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read and expended the energy to respond. Thank you all for demonstrating that some people of worth are still living: even a harsh critique requires some consideration and that is more than these people are capable of. You have restored, somewhat, my faith in our species.
posted by Grod at 8:31 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you'll consider all suggestions with an open mind, consider this: move out. You say that you are broke. I submit that we all have resources we can draw on in times of crisis, and though we may be indebted for months or years afterwards, there are few situations in which we are completely helpless. When my last relationship ended, shockingly and suddenly, and I had no money whatsoever, I was able to raise two grand in a little under three weeks to move out because I had no other choice. I cashed out my 401k, sold things that I had planned on giving my grandkids, borrowed from sources both upstanding and shady, because I had no other choice.

A week before all that happened, if you had asked me how I would get two thousand dollars right now, I would honestly have said that I had no fucking idea. And yet, I got out, because I would have rather been homeless than live that nightmare one more day. Does this sounds familiar? Get out. There is a way to make it happen.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:55 PM on December 18, 2007

Dude, if you spent one-tenth this much energy negotiating with these folks and trying to find a solution that everyone can live with, you would have solved your problem already, with some juice left over for peace in the mideast.

Seriously, what has been the nature of your negotiation with your neighbors? Have you actually had a conversation with them? expressed your needs in a non-blaming way? proposed a solution, and actually listened to what they had to say in response?

Or have you confined yourself to formal complaints to the landlord, passive-aggressive games with the door, and eloquent ranting on the Internet?

If you're serious about finding a solution, then I suggest you look in the yellow pages under "Mediation." Baltimore may even have a neighborhood mediation department.

I'd Google it for you but honestly I'm kind of tired of you now. And no, you do not know for certain that your neighbor's smoking caused her cat to get cancer of the leg.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:03 AM on December 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Get a second job. Even if the only one available is at McDonald's, it'll get you out of the house, and you can quit after you make enough to move.
posted by fermezporte at 6:30 AM on December 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have nothing but empathy for you. I'm kind of shocked that people are questioning your mental sanity and that your response is inappropriate after you've described such horrible living conditions. I can only surmise that people cannot imagine it's THAT bad (doubting your claims, which isn't really great considering the nature of AskMe) or aren't paying attention to your health complaints and the time frame in which you've been dealing with them.

I'm allergic to cigarette smoke and I would have had no other recourse but to move out long ago. It sounds absolutely awful and frankly, debilitating. In addition, because you've tried to stop the situation and have been thwarted repeatedly, your frustration must be sky-high, and I have nothing but sympathy.

Unfortunately, I have to say that from the looks of the situation, I can only suggest that you find some way, any way, to move out. I cannot see a way this situation will be resolved without you leaving in some fashion. I urge you to find some way out of this living situation - can you stay with friends or family for a short time? Ask for a short-term loan from the same? Get some sort of horrible pay-day loan or something that NORMALLY would be a bad idea but in dire straits, take it on so you can move out?

I wish you the best of luck, the deepest of sympathies and I hope that you are able to move out soon.
posted by agregoli at 8:08 AM on December 19, 2007

I haven't read all the replies, so apologies if this is a duplicate, but you could offer a lease renewal with the landlord as bait to encourage him to deal with the smokers.

Good luck. I'm an asthmatic, and even though I opposed the anti-smoking legislation that just passed in the UK on civil liberties grounds, my lungs are LOVING it!
posted by happyturtle at 9:27 AM on December 19, 2007

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