The Unintended Consequences of Smoke-Free Public Housing

The policies can go a long way toward improving tenants' health, but they needn't result in evictions.
February 11, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
(TNS/John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
By Emmy Ganos  |  Contributor
A program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
By Matthew Pierce  |  Contributor
A program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

With temperatures in parts of the country threatening to hit record lows this winter, it's hard to imagine not having a safe, affordable place to live. But a rule prohibiting indoor smoking in public housing could result in evictions for tenants who break the rule repeatedly -- literally leaving them out in the cold. Last year, Jim Armstrong, a policy analyst for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, predicted that evictions for smoking violations would likely start around now.

Smoke-free housing has tremendous potential to improve health by ensuring that tenants have cleaner air to breathe and to enhance their safety by reducing fires. But, somewhat ironically, this potential will not be fully realized if residents are evicted for smoking.

Safety and stability are both essential elements of a healthy home. A safe, stable, affordable home is a critical foundation for good health and well-being. Stability not only provides families with consistent, predictable access to schools, jobs and social connections but also with the ability to plan beyond tomorrow. Conversely, housing instability creates disruption and anxiety for families and their children. Evictions can result in disruptions of work, school, support networks of families and friends, and health and other services.

Experience from early adopters of smoke-free rules for public housing suggests that clean air does not have to come at the cost of evictions. In Illinois, for example, the Housing Authority of Cook County implemented smoke-free protections in December 2015 and has had no evictions for smoking. The agency trained property managers to connect residents to the Illinois Tobacco Quitline and other smoking-cessation services. It also posted signs, including window clings and door hangers, to notify residents of the smoke-free policy, provide contact information for the state quit line and share tips for quitting.

For housing authorities that want to avoid evictions resulting from smoke-free policies, there are additional strategies, including:

• Involving resident leaders, councils and service providers in the development of compliance policies and educating staff about policies and enforcement protocol.

• Not using fines to enforce the rule.

• Providing residents with at least three warnings, and, at each, sharing culturally appropriate information on how to access cessation services and nicotine replacement therapies.

• Allowing residents who are violation-free for a several months to "reset" so that new violations count as the first, or allowing them to clear violations from their record by attending a cessation class or calling a quit line.

• Providing reasonable accommodations such as access to clean, safe and well-lit outside smoking shelters and offering to move residents to units that allow easier access to those accommodations.

• Providing ongoing reminders of policies and cessation and compliance strategies.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy focused on health and health care, is a long-time advocate of smoke-free indoor air and tobacco cessation. But we are also committed to learning how best to implement smoke-free public housing policies so that they support rather than punish residents and improve health and well-being for all.

Plenty of resources are available. A less punitive approach will create healthier housing and lower costs over the long run; we encourage public housing agencies and their partners to take advantage of these resources as they work to create the smoke-free environments that benefit everyone.