Banning Smoking in Public Housing

Updated 8:45 p.m.

 By John Dorschner
    While other areas are seeing heated -- sometimes shocked -- reactions to a proposed ban on smoking in the nation's public housing, Miami-Dade has already started exploring possible options.
    On Nov. 3 -- nine days before the national announcement -- county commissioners quietly passed by a vote of 10 to 2 a resolution ordering staff  "to develop, in consultation with the residents ... and resident councils, a smoke-free policy for all multi-family public housing and affordable housing developments owned and operated by the county."
    Last Thursday, Nov. 12, Julian Castro, secretary of  Housing and Urban Development, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced "a proposed rule to make the nation's public housing properties entirely smoke-free" within 18 months, according to the press release out of Washington.
    They sought public comments over the next 60 days.
    Public comments are likely to be intense -- weighing the health benefits against the image of Big Brother ordering what the poor can do, even within their apartments.

                             "What the Hell Is This?"
    That discussion has already started locally. "What the hell is this?" asked Wallace Vance, head of residents' council at the 100-unit Lemon City project on NE 69th Street. "I just don't believe they can tell you what to do in your own home. I really have a problem with that – and smoking is legal.” 
    Vance, who said he doesn't smoke, was concerned because Lemon City is mostly elderly residents, and those who do smoke would have a very hard time quitting.
    Over at 753-unit Liberty Square project, three men sitting on the stoop of a unit facing the community center didn't like the idea at all. "That's like Communist," said a man with a shaved head who didn't want to give  his name. "That's crazy," said another.
    The push for a national smoking ban "shouldn't be a big surprise," says Michael Liu, Dade's director of public housing and a former HUD official.
Michael Liu
He said discussion of the move goes back at least to 2012, when HUD strongly encouraged local public housing authorities to start smoke-free regulations in all or some units.

    UPDATE: After learning of some negative comments on the proposal, Liu added in an email: "Just as there was push back when smoking was banned on airplanes, airports, hotels, and even some casinos, I am not surprised that there is not 100 percent consensus about HUD’s proposed policy or that initiated by the county." 
    About 500 housing authorities in 30-plus states are reported to have already instituted smoking bans smoking bans in 228,000 public housing units, according to HUD, which altogether provides housing for 1.2 million families, where 39 percent of residents are under 17 and 15 percent are 62 or older.
    Under HUD’s proposed rule, local public housing authorities would be required to ban all lit tobacco products from "living units,  indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative office buildings."
    The crucial issue is what happens within apartments.
    "HUD is very clear," Liu said of the direction of the federal agency is heading. "Absolutely no smoking within units."
    Because the vast majority -- sometimes the entire -- funding for public housing comes from HUD, Liu said, national policy will trump whatever the locals decide. He noted that a local HUD official testified in support of the Dade resolution.
    Commissioners told staff to bring back a no-smoking plan for approval no later than April 2016.
    The county resolution quotes a Centers for Disease Control study published in February that one in four nonsmokers are exposed to second-hand smoke. That includes two in five children (and seven in 10 black children).

                              Savings of $153 Million
    HUD says the health benefits -- and dollar savings -- are clear. It cited a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control that $153 million could be saved annually by prohibiting smoking in pubic housing -- $94 million in healthcare related to second-hand smoke, $43 million in renovating smoking-permitted units and $16 million in losses due to smoking related fires.
    "We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases," HUD Secretary Castro said in a prepared statement.
    "Everyone – no matter where they live – deserves a chance to grow up in a healthy, smoke-free home,” said Surgeon General Murthy. "There is no safe level of secondhand smoke."
    In Miami-Dade, the commissioner's resolution starts  discussions among the residents and their councils for the 9,200 units that the county controls in 100 family and elderly developments.
    Sarah Smith, president of the Liberty Square council, said she'd withhold judgment about the smoking proposals until she learns more about them in discussion groups.

Sarah Smith
"It's too early for me to saying anything."
    But one firm indication that a strong push-back is expected from residents came from Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes many public housing units in Liberty City. She  voted against the Nov. 3 resolution.
    Tom Petersen, a senior judge who has spent years working in and studying Dade's public housing, said in an email: "Clearly there is no right to smoke and such bans are constitutional: College campuses have them.
    "But there is also no way to enforce them within one’s home," Petersen wrote. "It appears to be a non-starter."
    On Tuesday, three men sitting on a Liberty Square stoop wondered if a smoking ban might become another threat hanging over the heads of residents. "A way they could use to kick people out of Liberty Square," said a bearded man who didn't want to give his name.

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