'There Will Be Evictions': New Smoking Ban Roils Public Housing's Oldest Residents

The rule, which is projected to save states $150 million a year, went into effect this summer.
by | September 26, 2018
Man smoking a cigarette outside of an apartment building.
(TNS/John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

SPEED READ:

  • A new no-smoking-in-public-housing rule took effect July 31.
  • It is supposed to save states $150 million a year in health and renovation costs.
  • Elderly residents, who are more likely to lack mobility and to have smoked for a longer period of time, are slowest to adjust.
  • Evictions for smoking violations are rare but could start at the end of the year.
 

The 2 million people living in public housing have a new rule to follow: no smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars or vapes within 25 feet of their building.

When the Obama administration first proposed the rule, more than 600 agencies out of 3,300 had already made public housing units smoke-free. But there is one population that public housing directors say has been slow to adjust to the rule: elderly residents, who are more likely to lack mobility and to have smoked for a longer period of time.

"It’s a big shift. It’s a change in their environment. When you’re used to a routine, change takes time," says Lakeesha James-Smith, elder services coordinator for the Bloomington Housing Authority in Bloomington, Ill.

If residents are caught breaking the rule, there are a number of steps before a tenant could get evicted: a three-strike warning, a 30-day "remedy period" in which the landlord and tenant try to work out the disagreement and then a "grievance period" for a tenant to appeal an upcoming eviction. There are unlikely to be evictions for smoking violations until the end of the year, according to Jim Armstrong, policy analyst for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. In the meantime, housing authorities have been issuing warnings.

Donald Cameron, director of the Charleston Housing Authority in South Carolina, has been educating residents about the rule and says he won't evict anyone over it. But he worries that others will.

"We’re going to get to a point when somebody is going to decide to vigorously enforce this, and there will be evictions," he says. "Magistrates at the local level will then have to consider if it was a serious enough lease violation. Nine out of 10 times a case like that will be with an elderly person."

In housing authorities that had no-smoking policies before the federal mandate, evictions were rare. Still, Charleston plans to launch an educational campaign aimed at senior residents this fall.

"A significant number of our seniors care for children. You’re not going to get someone who has been smoking for 30 years to go, 'Oh, I see the health risks now.' But when you frame it around the risks of secondhand smoke with children, well, they’ll have a soft spot for that," says Cameron.

Bloomington, meanwhile, will focus on helping residents live healthier lives and will help them replace nicotine. This fall, the housing authority will kick off a "happiness campaign" with activities based around mindfulness.

"When you take something out of someone’s life, you have to replace it with something else," says James-Smith.

The rule is supposed to not only improve residents' health but save states money. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in 2014 that found a smoking ban in public housing (excluding subsidized housing) could save states almost $150 million a year. Most of the savings would come from reduced health costs related to secondhand smoke. In a 2016 interview with Governing, Brian King, deputy director for the CDC's Office of Smoking and Health, said housing authorities would also save money on renovations.

"When people smoke in their home, it creates damage that has to be fixed once they move out. Finally, the costs from fires in and around the homes would also drive down expenses," King says.

At the time of the rule's proposal, public housing stakeholders warned that it doesn’t take into account the day-to-day realities of public housing directors.

"Public housing right now is besieged. We have a budget crisis on our hands, we’re only seeing 80 cents on the dollar of what we’re supposed to get [from the feds]," said Tim Kaiser, executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. "And now the administration is proposing literally millions of hours of time during historically low funding."

One group, NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, filed a lawsuit against the rule. It is still pending.

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