Smoke-free or free to smoke? BHA moves to ban lighting up inside public housing units

Adam Sennott
Spare Change News

The Boston Housing Authority is taking steps toward protecting its residents from the dangers of second-hand smoke. However, some residents feel their rights are being violated.

The Boston Housing Authority is moving forward with plans to implement a smoke-free housing policy in September 2012. This policy will prohibit residents and guests from smoking in housing units or developments, and instead require them to go outside to designated smoking areas. Tenants who fail to comply with the policy could face fines of up to $250 or even eviction.

According to Lydia Agro, director of communications and public affairs for the Boston Housing Authority, a smoke-free housing policy was considered in order to protect tenants from the health risks associated with second-hand smoke.

“We get a number of requests for transfers and complaints [from tenants] who have asthma,” Agro said. “And the negative health effects of second-hand smoke are very clearly documented at this point in time.”

The Boston Housing Authority responded to complaints of second-hand smoke by surveying tenants about the possibility of implementing the smoke-free policy. According to Agro, the results of the survey showed tenants overwhelmingly supported the policy.

“We surveyed our residents across the city and we found that, at about a 90 percent return rate for both people who don’t smoke and some who smoke, [the majority was] in support of the policy for smoke-free housing.”

Opponents of the policy argue that the results of the survey are not an accurate representation of how tenants feel because many who oppose the bill did not respond.

Several residents of the Mary Ellen McCormack Housing Development, the oldest and one of the largest public housing developments in Boston, expressed outrage over the BHA’s plan to implement the policy during a task force meeting at 345 Old Colony Ave.

“The tenants I represent … and some of them are non-smokers, are vehemently opposed to the government telling them how to live their lives,” said Stephen Laverty, vice chairperson and resident service provider of the resident task force at the Mary Ellen McCormack Housing Development. “It’s a gross infringement on their civil liberty. We are living in a nanny state. In other words, the government has decided that they know what’s better for you than you do. And they have decided, whether you agree with them or not, that they’re going to shove what they think is better for you down your throat. That’s what a nanny state is, okay, where they set whatever health, dietary, lifestyle policies they want and then they legislate them and force them down your throat because you refuse to adopt them voluntarily.”

However, according to Lydia Agro, the Smoke-Free Housing Policy has already been implemented in the Franklin Hill and Washington Beech Housing Developments without difficulties.

“I know there is a case that has been made by some residents that it’s a civil liberties issue, that they should be able to smoke in their own apartments. But on the flip side of that, is that people have the right not to have their health impacted by neighbors when they’re in their own apartments,” Agro said. “We have real cases everyday where people have severe health impacts either due to or exacerbated by second-hand smoke from their neighbors.”

Agro also noted that there are support services available for those who wish to quit smoking. “In partnership with the BHA towards this initiative, the Boston Public Health Commission funds a full-time smoking cessation specialist who is available to BHA residents, and that person is running smoking cessation groups in both out-family and elderly disabled developments for residents who want to participate. It provides individual counseling to people, as well as nicotine patches and other cessation materials,” said Agro.

Georgia Schipani, who has lived in the Heritage Apartments in East Boston for the past 17 years and serves as president of the Heritage Apartments Tenants Council, says she supports the smoke-free housing policy. Schipani underwent a lung procedure in 2010, and says the smoke from her neighbor’s apartment makes it difficult for her to breathe.

“My thoracic surgeon said I cannot be around second-hand smoke, and the person on the first floor here smokes quite a bit and she hasn’t stopped, either, so I put in for a transfer but I haven’t received it as yet.”

Schipani, who quit smoking more than 40 years ago, attempts to cleanse her apartment from any smoke daily. “[The cigarette smoke] comes right up through the pipes. I mean, all your openings, it comes right up through; the sink, the drain, the bathroom drain in the sink and in the tub, through the radiators, especially when you put the heat on in the wintertime. I have a window open 24/7, 12 months out of the year. I have fans blowing away from me at night when I go to bed.”

Carol Leary, who has lived in a Boston Housing Authority unit for the past 15 years, says she also supports the policy because of the risks associated with second-hand smoke.

“I have problems with the constitutional aspect. However, from the public health aspect, I couldn’t agree more. We’re all in this together. It’s close quarters no matter what design your building has,” said Leary, who quit smoking five months ago. “It’s actually a health hazard to other people, to your neighbors.”

Leary believes this policy is similar to other rules the building units have. She says it is the tenant’s responsibility to respect the neighbors. “We all have leases and we have to abide by them, or not, but there are consequences. We all have to turn down our TVs at nine or ten o’clock at night. We all have to be aware of people living around us and do our best to take care of each other.”

Although this is the first time the BHA has executed a blanket smoke-free housing policy, they have implemented similar policies in individual developments. The Franklin Hill public housing development in Dorchester and the Washington Beech public housing development in Roslindale both have created similar policies. Agro notes that there haven’t been any fines or evictions since the policies were carried out.

“When we’ve implemented in other locations, the fact that the residents are that supportive of this policy has really made the implementation [process] seamless,” Agro said. “We have not had problems with violations of the policy, to my knowledge, at Washington Beech or at Franklin Hill. Our residents are asking for this policy.”

Some tenants argue that the smoke-free housing policy infringes on their rights by stating what they can or cannot do in the privacy of their own homes.

“What the Boston Housing Authority has proposed is a total smoking ban, which includes the banning of smoking in one’s own home, in the privacy of your apartment,” Laverty said. “To me, I don’t care if it’s subsidized housing or you’re paying $1,700 a month, no government or government agency has the right to tell somebody what they can do within the walls of their own home.”

Chandra Richardson, a tenant living in the Mary Ellen McCormack Housing Development, echoed Laverty’s sentiments.

“I don’t think they should be able to say what you do in your own home, as long as it’s not illegal,” Richardson said. “Next thing it might be: we can’t drink soda, we can only drink diet sodas or stuff like that, alcohol, any of that, you know? It’s just an invasion of privacy.”

Richardson also said that she has a leg condition that that requires her to occasionally use a cane and would make it difficult for her to go outside to smoke a cigarette.

“I have a bad leg, I can’t be walking up and down these stairs. I am on the third floor,” Richardson said. “I have arthritis and gout, so it’s hard for me to get up and down.”

Laverty claimed that he had suggested several alternatives to a blanket ban on smoking. The Boston Housing Authority, however, is following through with their plan. He also believes that a ban on smoking could eventually lead to other bans on public housing properties, such as alcohol and even fast food.

“[I suggested] a democratic election at each development so that the tenants can decide for themselves whether that development will allow smoking or not. They refused,” said Laverty. “The second thing I proposed was smoking and non-smoking buildings. They refused. I also proposed that they exempt the elderly and disabled. They refused.”
Laverty also worries that the BHA’s plan to designate smoking areas outside will create an unsafe environment for tenants, especially when they go out for a cigarette late at night.

“If they expect people to go outside at all hours of the day and night for cigarettes, it’s only a matter of time before someone is beaten, robbed, raped, or murdered,” Laverty said. He also expressed concern for those who are elderly or disabled going out late at night for a smoke.

“It’s fine to ban smoking in common areas, that’s just plain common sense. It’s fine to ban smoking where there’s a medical situation or something like that; but to put down a blanket ban, not to exempt the elderly, the disabled, it’s just wrong.”

Richardson said that while she sometimes does smoke at night, she would not go outside because she fears for her safety.

While the BHA said that it is planning to implement the smoke-free housing policy due to health concerns, Laverty said that if it is truly concerned with the health of its tenants, then there are other more pressing issues that deserve attention.

“Let’s talk about the amount of mold in those apartments that they do nothing about; black mold which aggravates preexisting medical conditions,” Laverty said. “Let’s talk about lead paint in people’s apartments that they just painted over. Let’s talk about windows that don’t work. Let’s talk about all the other problems that exist in public housing that money should be poured into, and instead they’re going to pour it into this, fining and evicting people for using a legal product?”

Although the BHA made it clear that it is not administering the policy with the intention of fining or evicting residents, according to Agro, there are currently no plans to set a clear standard for what would constitute either penalty.

“The fines are intended for people who are repeatedly disregarding the policy, and our intent is really getting the smoke out of the building, not to evict or fine people,” Agro said. “Those things are going to be determined on a case by case basis. We don’t have a set number; if you violate the policy X number of times, then we move forward. We’re going to look at individual circumstances, but our intent is getting the smoke out of the buildings.”

“Residents have many rights around eviction proceedings,” Agro said. “There’s a disagreement procedure where they can ask for a grievance hearing and they go before a panel of residents and staff. If they feel that the action the BHA is taking is [unfair] they can make their case before it even ends up in court.” Argo added it is not BHA’s intention to take a tenant to court for violating the policy. “That’s not our interest; our interest is, and our intent is, on getting smoke out of the buildings, not to evict or fine people.”

ADAM SENNOTT is former editor of Spare Change News.

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