Public housing smoking ban sparks mixed reviews in NYC

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Elba Acosta was distressed to learn that her morning habit of coffee and a smoke inside her New York City Housing Authority apartment will be banned under new federal rules prohibiting smoking in public housing.

“I have my black coffee and a cigarette at home,” Acosta, 67, said Thursday outside the Chelsea-Elliot Houses. “I mean, that’s my freedom. You do whatever you want to do because it’s your body. The government has no business in your personal choice.”

Acosta was reacting to U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s announcement Wednesday that smoking will be banned in public housing developments nationwide. Housing agencies will have 18 months to implement the ban, which will apply to apartments and indoor common areas as well as outside areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative offices.

Castro stressed the dangers of secondhand smoke for children, saying, “Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home, free from harmful secondhand cigarette smoke.”

Housing authorities in several cities including Boston, Seattle, Syracuse and San Antonio already ban smoking in apartments, but the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest with more than 400,000 residents, currently prohibits smoking only in common areas, such as lobbies and hallways.

Reactions to the impending ban were mixed at the Chelsea-Elliot Houses and the Fulton Houses, both in Manhattan’s Chelsea section.

Smoke-free living can’t come soon enough for Aurea Martinez, 83, who neither smokes nor allows anyone to smoke in her apartment. “I’m against the people that smoke,” Martinez said. “It’s not good for my health.”

But Jose Rodriguez said stress drives housing authority tenants to smoke.

“I just smoke ’cause right now I’m looking for work,” said the 46-year-old Rodriguez, holding an unlit cigarette as he exited his building.

Rodriguez said he smokes outside but some of his neighbours smoke in their apartments. “This is the only thing that calms them down,” he said. “Do you want them to buy a bottle and start drinking?”

Officials at public housing agencies that already ban smoking said residents have adjusted.

Bill Simmons, executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority, said the agency spent two years educating tenants about the city’s smoking ban before implementing it last year.

Simmons said that while some tenants “felt their rights were being violated,” there have been few problems since the ban went into effect. “Things have worked out well,” he said. “It’s been good.”

The Seattle Housing Authority banned smoking in 2012 after extensive consultation with residents, agency spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin said. “People are used to it now,” she said. “So many places don’t allow smoking.”

The San Antonio Housing Authority also banned smoking in 2012 after surveys showed 80 per cent of residents favoured the ban, spokeswoman Rosario Neaves said.

Neaves said that under San Antonio’s initial enforcement plan, tenants would get a lease-termination notice only after violating the smoking ban five times. That’s since been amended to a three-strikes-you’re-out policy. No one has yet been evicted for smoking, Neaves said.

Neaves said enforcement efforts have been aided by tenants who can smell the smoke coming from neighbouring apartments.

“We do have people telling on each other and that’s one of the ways that people do find out,” Neaves said. “If it bothers them and they want to protect their health then they’re going to speak up.”