A New Smoking Ban in Public Housing Roils Some Residents

By: - August 20, 2018 12:00 am

This article was updated to include comment from the Atlanta Housing Authority.

ATLANTA — It’s August here, which means things are hot, verging on swampy. And it’s cigarette break time, which means the denizens of the Barge Road Highrise senior housing complex are both hot and cranky. Really cranky. 

The source of their ire: Thanks to a new nationwide ban on smoking in public housing, they can no longer light up in the air-conditioned privacy of their own homes. Instead, as Atlanta Housing Authority tenants, they’re now relegated to the steamy outskirts of the property — to be precise, the MARTA bus stop, where a cluster of them are now huddled. 

So yeah, they’re mad. 

“We’re not happy, sitting here like the outcasts of the building,” said Delores Hall, a retired nurse’s aide, spitting out her words. “I’m 73 years old. What I look like, smoking out here like a teenager?” 

Larry Curry, 50, who’s been using a wheelchair ever since a bullet paralyzed him 30 years ago, added, “I’ve started chain smoking. I’m smoking more since I have to smoke outdoors now.” 

As of the end of July, lighting up in any of the nation’s public housing complexes is now against the rules. That means no cigarettes, cigars or hookahs within 25 feet of the property in hallways, common areas, offices — even in one’s own apartment, much to the aggravation of Hall and her compatriots. 

“It makes no sense,” Hall said. “You can’t smoke where you live and pay rent. I ain’t got no rights after living here for 10 years. I’m not even grandfathered in.” 

The ban was supported by housing officials across the country, who say many of their residents want strict consequences for breaking the new rules. Still, many advocates worry about enforcement — and whether the ban will become an excuse to evict low-income people at a time when the housing crunch is so bad that it’s making national headlines.

The new ban — proposed during the Obama administration and being finalized now — is intended to protect the health of public housing residents and save money on maintaining units.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ban affects about 1.2 million households around the country, and some 3,300 locally-run public housing authorities.

Many housing advocates support the ban. But they worry about how it will be enforced. Elderly, disabled and mentally ill tenants, they say, will have a harder time complying because the ban forces them to stand 25 feet away from their front door to smoke, no matter the weather. (People with disabilities are more likely to smoke, according to the CDC).

And advocates also fear the ban will create a situation in which neighbors end up ratting out neighbors — and vulnerable tenants will get pushed out. 

“We support the rule because of its positive health impact on families,” said Deborah Thrope, supervising attorney for the National Housing Law Project, a San Francisco-based tenants’ rights group. 

“That being said,” she added, “we really have to weigh the smoking ban with the negative impacts of homelessness and poverty, which this rule will cause.” 

Some housing authorities had smoking bans in place before this month. Already, in these early days of the broader ban, Thrope’s office has fielded calls from tenants around the country who’ve been threatened with eviction for smoking.  

In cities with preexisting bans, some residents have complained about housing managers entering their homes to use handheld smoke detectors, she said. 

Meanwhile, in July, a group of public housing residents sued HUD to overturn the broader ban, charging the agency has overstepped its authority, and that tenants “are now prohibited from exercising their right to engage in a legal activity (smoking) in the privacy of their own homes, under threat of eviction.” 

“I know anti-smokers. They’re incrementalists,” said Audrey Silk, the founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (C.L.A.S.H.), a national smokers’ rights group, which is representing the residents. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they picked public housing as their first foot into our private homes,” she said. “This isn’t about protecting nonsmokers. This is an effort to get smokers to quit.” 

Right to Privacy?

Nearly 5,000 municipalities have laws restricting smoking. Many of them have made offices, restaurants and bars 100 percent smoke-free, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, a national advocacy group. And increasingly, college campuses are banning smoking as well. 

Smoking bans are often controversial, but they usually survive court challenges because of legitimate public health concerns about secondhand smoke, Thrope said. Smokers are not considered a protected class under the Fair Housing Act. 

According to Ed Gramlich, senior advisor for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, tenants often are the ones pushing for strict enforcement of smoking bans. 

In New York City, tenants told housing officials that they wanted “real consequences for other residents who violated the rule,” said Andrea Mata, director of health initiatives at the New York City Housing Authority. Working with tenants, the NYCHA came up with an enforcement policy that gets increasingly punitive with each violation: from an informal chat with management, to documented warnings, to beginning eviction proceedings.

Enforcing the ban means enlisting the help of other residents, said Bill Cook, director of the King County Housing Authority in Washington state, which started banning smoking in some of its apartments more than a decade ago. 

“If they notice someone smoking, we encourage them to say, ‘You’re breaking the rules,’” Cook said. (He said the authority has yet to evict a tenant for smoking.) 

But it’s that level of tenant involvement that has advocates, such as Thrope, worried. There’s always a lot of distrust between tenants and management, she said. 

“It will absolutely lead to neighbors snitching,” she predicts. 

That’s a concern for the Barge Highrise smokers. Gossip, they say, is valuable currency in their building. Already, folks are popping into the management’s offices to complain that they smell smoke in the stairwells.

There’s no way they’d risk smoking in the stairwells, the smokers insist. There are security cameras everywhere

“I’m not fixing to be put out on some ‘he-said-she-said mess,’” said Curry. “Everybody’s word isn’t gospel.” 

“The ones who complain the most are the ex-smokers,” added Hall. “They’re jealous ‘cause they can’t smoke anymore.” 

Going Smoke-Free 

Public housing tenants are more likely to smoke than people who don’t live in public housing. A 2017 study found that one-third of adults living in public housing smoked, compared to 16 percent of the general public. The study found half of public housing residents had attempted to quit and failed, and that they were “particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of smoking and secondhand smoke exposure.” 

The goal of the ban was to protect the health of residents and to save money for often cash-strapped housing authorities, said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Many tenants struggle with asthma and other health issues, she said. And cleaning up a unit after a smoker moves out can be expensive.

A 2011 UCLA study found that California landlords, both public and private, could save $18 million a year in cleanup costs if they banned smoking in their units. Accumulated smoke settles in the walls, cabinets, doors and floors — which often means completely replacing carpet and the like. 

The smoking ban is a mandate, but officials do have leeway in how to enforce it, Zaterman said.

In New York City, housing officials viewed enforcement for more than 400,000 residents to be so complicated that they had told HUD they’d need at least three years to roll out the new policy. But HUD gave all housing authorities 18 months to comply. 

The city is working with non-smoking groups to support tenants who want to quit, and will make provisions for smokers with special needs, such as needing to be on the first floor to get outside more easily for a smoke, Mata said. 

“We’re not shaming anyone for smoking,” Mata said. “We’re not saying you have to stop smoking. It’s just about removing smoke from the environment.”

Many other public housing officials have a similar attitude, according to Zaterman. “The point of housing authorities is to house people,” she said. “They’re reluctant to get into an enforcement environment where people might lose their housing.”

For their part, Barge Highrise’s smoking tenants said they do feel like they are being shamed. When management announced the pending ban last year, they said, no one consulted with them about how to implement the ban or talked about creating a safe spot for smoking outside. 

“We knew there was going to be some pushback and some unhappy residents,” said Cecilia Cheeks-Taylor, chief of staff for the Atlanta Housing Authority. “We made sure there were designated smoking areas that were covered and had seating.” (She said many residents were using the bus stop to smoke even before the ban took effect.)

Residents were also given resources for quitting smoking, she said.

For Hall, who uses a wheelchair, quitting isn’t an option.

“I’ve been smoking since I’m 16,” she said. “What are the chances I’m going to quit now at 73? Let me die happy.” 

And they fret about their safety, living in a neighborhood they call “crack heaven,” where drug dealing, robberies and kidnappings are the norm. 

The other night, Carmen Williams was enjoying her nightly cigarette, when a car drove slowly by, circling back to drive by her again and again. It freaked her out, so she cut her smoke short and went inside. 

“If I’m standing out here, by myself, smoking, they can roll up and grab me,” said Williams, a 59-year-old retired customer service representative. 

“Don’t say that,” said her friend, Angela Horton. “Next thing you know, they’ll say we can’t even stand outside and smoke at 2 in the morning.”

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.