Plans to Prohibit Smoking in Public Housing Has Residents Fired Up

By Brenda Flanagan

“Oh, wow. Not good,” said Jeannie Gonzalez.

At Newark’s Pennington Court and Stephen Crane Village — both public housing complexes — smokers got huffy when they heard about the federal proposal to ban smoking, not just inside all public housing hallways, but even inside their own apartments.

“That’s the only place left now, because everywhere else you can’t smoke,” she said.

“You can’t smoke inside a bar; that’s different because that’s a bar. But inside of your home you should be able to smoke,” said Shalena Williams.

“Public housing should go smoke free,” said Julian Castro.

Castro, Director of Housing and Urban Development, announced the proposed prohibition yesterday. He cited several benefits among them saving kids and elderly tenants from inhaling dangerous secondhand smoke. The CDC reports that while about 17 percent of all adults smoke, the rate climbs to more than 26 percent in adults living below the poverty level.

“Do we want public housing to be an environment that is healthy? Or one where 760,000 children have to live in smoke filled rooms and corridors and be harmed by secondhand smoke?” Castro asked.

President Clinton banned smoking in most federal office buildings years ago, and smoking bans aren’t unusual in market-rate apartments, but those residents do have more options than public housing tenants, who often wait on lists for available units.

“Folks don’t have a choice when they live there. They’re living there because they’re people of modest means,” Castro said.

But HUD can also count a smoking ban’s advantages in dollars and cents. The CDC says not lighting up in public housing could save New Jersey $2.6 million in healthcare costs, $1.6 million in apartment renovation expenses and $520,000 in fire damages — totaling $4.7 million. HUD has been promoting smoke-free housing, and says faced with increased demand and rising costs some 600 public housing authorities have already opted to ban smoking. But enforcing that prohibition isn’t easy.

“That would be real hard to do. You know, in your own apartment? They could take that rule and bring it out all they want,” said Betty Smith. “They could pass a law. It could be against the law,and people still are going do it.”

Residents do understand it’s a health issue.

“Around the children second hand smoke is one thing, but for us, that should be an option if we want to smoke in our own place or whatever,” said Tasia Cruel.

The public will get two months to air their opinions on the proposal and individual housing authorities will have to hold public hearings before they implement smoke free-policies.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.