Smoking and public housing

5/19/2018, 9:55 p.m.

Like many public housing residents, we were surprised to learn that smoking will be prohibited in all public housing apartments in Richmond beginning Aug. 1.

The smoking ban was put in place nationally by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and will affect more than 1.2 million households, including 4,000 families living in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties in the city.

Residents in public housing communities no longer will be able to smoke within their units, including on patios or balconies, in stairwells or other common areas, in management offices or within 25 feet of housing and office buildings.

In instituting the ban, HUD officials have noted the high health-related and other costs of smoking, as well as the negative impact secondhand smoke has on children, including causing or aggravating asthma and other diseases such as cancer. 

Federal housing officials also have said that while the government will not help to pay for enforcement, local housing authorities stand to save money under a smoke-free policy through fewer losses from fires and lower costs for cleaning and painting smoke-damaged units.

While we strongly agree that a smoke-free environment is optimal for individuals’ health, what troubles us most is that violators of the new smoking ban may be subject to eviction from their homes — a truly Draconian punishment for an addiction that studies show is extremely difficult to break.

Changing the policy on such short notice raises misgivings about whether this is a pretense to push people from their homes as part of the city’s continuing efforts to shut down public housing communities and make way for mixed-use, higher-income developments like the one planned for Creighton Court. 

 Orlando Artze, the RRHA’s interim chief executive officer, told the Free Press earlier this month that the RRHA has been trying to prepare residents for this policy change. We would like to know, however, just what efforts RRHA officials have undertaken, other than to notify residents just a few months before the smoking ban is to take place.

Published reports show that housing authorities have known such a ban has been in the works since 2009 — nearly a decade. And many agencies have used that valuable time to provide smoking cessation programs for residents.

Anyone who has been a smoker or lived around a smoker knows the challenges of ending the stranglehold of a tobacco addiction. Despite all the public service messages and graphic advertisements showing people emaciated by cancer and COPD, their voice boxes removed or their breathing raspy after a tracheotomy, people continue to smoke.

Now HUD and the RRHA are turning up the heat by threatening to boot people out of their homes and apartments if they violate the new smoking ban.

Our question is what is the RRHA doing — what is the Richmond Health Department doing — to help public housing residents quit smoking now that they risk losing their homes? What targeted non-smoking efforts with proven results can be offered to help Richmonders in the 12 weeks or so leading up to the Aug. 1 ban?