Saschane M. Stephenson

I couldn’t help chuckling a bit when I watched and listened to the responses elicited from housing residents.  One man said, “I mean, it’s an invasion of privacy!”  Smoker after smoker hissed out their frustration between puffs.  “Just who do think they are?  What are we supposed to do?  The Man just keeps coming doesn’t he?  Everywhere you turn, here comes the government with one more infringement on people’s rights.  Now they are standing at the front door saying people can’t smoke in their own house.” Only, that’s not really true—it just won’t happen in ‘their’ house.

A week ago in Maryland and other states, local reporters rushed to their nearest public housing building to get residents’ opinions on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement that it intended to ban the smoking of tobacco products in the living quarters of tenants nationwide.  Under the proposed rule, every public housing agency (PHA) must implement a smoke-free policy no later than 18 months after the rule takes effect.  

With over 1.12 million public housing units, the proposed rule banning lit tobacco products would affect hundreds of thousands of living units (about 500,000 of which, according to HUD, are occupied by the elderly).  The smoke-free ban will include the following areas:  the interior and exterior of all living units, indoor common areas in public housing and the PHA administrative office buildings, and all outdoor areas up to 25 feet from housing and agency administrative offices.  

The PHAs will also be allowed to take additional restrictive steps, if they choose to, including making their entire grounds smoke-free; designating a distinct smoking area outdoors on their property as long as the area is 25 feet or more away from their buildings; or they can create additional or larger zones where smoking is not allowed (like the area near a playground).

If there’s one thing puffing public housing tenants can be grateful for it’s that the HUD ban will not prohibit the enjoyment of lit marijuana products, so there’s at least some love remaining for tokers and those needing relief from medical ailments.

But why now?  The truth is this effort isn’t new.  Some feel the anti-smoking movement began in the 1990s, when activists and legislators began pushing for tobacco control as hundreds of people died annually from smoking-related diseases.  Today, many privately-owned rental apartments and co-ops enforce their own residential smoking prohibitions.  Additionally, public housing agencies (PHAs) in several states had already implemented smoke-free policies hailing back to 2012 when HUD released a notice to PHAs on smoking policies.  That notice influenced over 225 housing authorities across the United States to adopt non-smoking policies. The one common theme over the last two decades has been that smoking is dangerous, not just to the tobacco-product user but also to those around the smoker.

The fact is cigarette smoke does not stay confined to the smoker’s residence, especially in multi-unit buildings. In full disclosure, I have to say that I had my own fateful experience a few years ago when I spent all of two weeks in an apartment before vacating it because of the incessant second-hand smoke that came through the flooring, the air vents, the walls, the lighting, pretty much through every available crevice.  It was horrible and literally sickening.  

When the debates ensue, some argue that what’s really clear is that the objective is to make it less and less possible for people to smoke or to begin smoking.  Does HUD’s proposed rule build on the thought that the government is exercising paternalism?  Would we really be opposed to helping a couple hundred people not die a preventable death?

The statistics tell their own truth, and second-hand smoke is a legitimate health threat, particularly for the elderly, young children, the disabled, and those who have compromised immune systems.  HUD estimates that households equating to about 700,000 living units stand to benefit greatly from the proposed smoking ban in public housing.

HUD believes the nationwide rule will prevent public housing agency (PHA) administrators from wasting time trying to settle disputes between residents over second-hand smoke; and that the efforts will save PHAs and taxpayers money in avoiding catastrophic fires and costly repairs.  

The truth of the matter is public housing residents may only invoke privacy rights in a very limited set of circumstances—such as warrantless police searches, and in their marital relationships.  But we Americans are fantastic like this—we sometimes think we have some rights where we actually don’t and then a smack of reality wakes us up.  Here’s what I wanted to say to the frustrated persons that I saw being interviewed:

“Dear public housing resident, unfortunately the reality is that house you’re in is not your home.  You are a tenant. You live in somebody else’s spot (a.k.a., “property”), and you signed a contract (a.k.a., “lease”) which outlined a whole bunch of rules and responsibilities, with some fine print that you probably didn’t read that said the folks who own where you live can come back and tell you to follow a couple more rules.  Therefore, a bunch of “privacy” rights given to actual homeowners—where they get to do most things they want to do within their ‘four walls’—those will not be something you get to claim.”

It’s tough to hear, and truly I wonder what’s going to happen to the elderly folks who are smokers and living in public housing.  So what are smokers in public housing going to have to do when the rule goes into effect?  (And yes it will go into effect, because the general public tide is already moving in the direction that views smoking as a detrimental habit with no redemption.)

When the proposed rule sets in sometime in late winter or early spring, smokers in public housing have (hopefully) about 18 months to successfully complete a smoking-cessation program; perhaps take up smoking weed or some tobacco alternative until those eventually get monitored; or they will quite simply have to find someplace else to live. 

I predict the first two of the three options are going to be the likely winners because housing is not a human right in the United States; and for that matter, public housing is a subsidized benefit where claiming an infringement on privacy as far as the ban is concerned will hold no weight.

HUD really wants to hear from the individuals and communities, and so all opinions on the public housing smoking-ban can be submitted from now to Jan. 19, 2016, at!documentDetail;D=HUD-2015-0101-0001.