Detroit may ban smoking in public housing

The world for Michigan’s smokers may be shrinking again. Already illegal to light up in public buildings, bars, restaurants and — by Detroit may ban smokingJuly 1 — on University of Michigan campuses, smoking bans are moving inside some public housing, too.

On Dec. 16, an administrator overseeing the Detroit Housing Commission will decide whether to ban smoking in its more than 4,000 public housing units — from multiple-dwelling high-rises to single-family homes.

Authorities elsewhere have found that it’s cheaper to clean and turn over units belonging to nonsmokers. But health concerns over secondhand smoke drove the decision, said Herticene Hardaway, general counsel for the commission.

“Especially if you live in a high-rise, if you have to live with people on top of you and beside you, and you have a neighbor who is going to smoke, you’re unfortunately going to catch some of that smoke,” she said.

Detroit is among the largest housing commissions in the U.S. to take up a smoking ban, but 49 other Michigan housing commissions have already passed such policies. Enforcement, authorities said, isn’t always easy; they rely on complaints and regular inspections of homes. The penalty for repeat scofflaws? Possible eviction.

Public housing looks to ban smoking in interest of public health

Essie Williams says she gets it: Smokers feel they have the right to do what they want in their own homes.

But when residents share air ducts, vents and entryways? Well, that’s different, said the 79-year-old resident of Sheridan Place, a Detroit public housing complex.

“Say you’ve burned your toast — I’m going to smell it. And if you’re smoking a cigarette, I smell it. And that’s secondhand smoke, too,” she said of the tobacco smoke. “Sure, it’s an argument (that) it’s your own home … but what am I supposed to do? That’s my air, too.”

No-smoking policies have cropped up in public housing across the country after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last year that such policies are not only legal, but “strongly encouraged.”

HUD noted the links between smoking and respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer, as well as the costs of smoking-related fires.

Michigan a trendsetter

Today, there are at least 225 housing authorities or commissions that have adopted policies across the U.S. — 49 in Michigan, said Jim Bergman of the Ann Arbor-based Smoke-Free Environments Law Project.

Eight more housing authorities in Michigan, including one in Lansing, are expected to enact bans in the coming months. “Michigan really is a leader in this,” said Bergman, an attorney.

The Detroit Housing Commission was listed as a troubled agency in 2005, which forced it to turn over local control to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The smoke-free proposal will be decided by Steven Meiss, HUD recovery administrator.

He will consider the recommendation from the Detroit commission’s executive director, Eugene Jones, who said in an interview last week that he supports a full ban in public housing.

Meiss previously approved a no-smoking ban in June, but authorities hadn’t given residents the required 30-day notice before the decision, said the commission’s general counsel, Hurticene Hardaway. That means it must be approved again.

The proposal in Detroit may be a catalyst for other housing facilities in the state.

“When you have one-third of the housing commissions (in Michigan) accepting some kind of policy, the others will do the same thing,” Bergman said.

Jim Schaafsma, a housing law attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, which advocates for low-income residents, said the notion that a person’s “home is his castle” has not disappeared from the law, but the dangers of secondhand smoke are irrefutable.

“While I often advocate for the individual, the interests of the community outweighs the interest of the individual,” he said.

But the way Raymond Alfred, 57, and roommate Cynthia McCoy, 56, see it, that’s trampling on the freedom to make their own, informed decision in their home at Riverbend Towers, a Detroit public housing property. “I know the pros and cons of smoking. … Don’t treat me like a kid,” McCoy said.

Bans in other cities

Smoke-free policies vary among public housing commissions. Some ban smoking altogether in buildings, or limit smoking to areas outside. Some give smokers a few months to quit. Others — such as in the 61-unit Leo Paluch Senior Apartments in Allen Park — allow residents to continue smoking indoors until they transfer apartments or move out.

“If I’m an adult and I sign a lease … and I move in under those terms, then the landlord is changing the rules, that doesn’t seem fair,” said Andrew Hill, executive director.

The move toward a smoke-free facility in Allen Park was driven by finances. Fewer smokers led to lower cleaning bills and property insurance premiums, Hill said.

Resident Helen Schellang, 69, said management’s exceptions for residents who already smoked forged cooperation between residents and management and among the residents, themselves.

“They listen to us vigorously,” she said of the managers.

The Livonia Housing Commission, which like Allen Park passed its policy in 2006, also offered exceptions for residents who already smoke. It, too, will eventually be smoke-free, said executive director Jim Inglis. A few residents who allowed guests to smoke were given notices of eviction, but the tenants agreed to make sure it didn’t happen again and got another chance, Inglis said.

The policy irritated some newcomers who smoke, but everyone has come to accept the policy, said resident Josie Smith, 79, who said her husband, a chain-smoker, died of lung cancer.

“When you come in, you know the rules,” she said.

Free Press Medical Writer

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