Three Strikes: KC Public Housing Smoking Ban Puts Onus On Tenants
Despite the well-known risks, rates of smoking have remained stubbornly high in Missouri – about 25 percent of adults, compared with 18 percent nationally. In Kansas City public housing, the problem is even worse, with smokers comprising 40 percent of all tenants.
That high rate is especially disturbing to health advocates because of the high numbers of vulnerable people, particularly children, the disabled and elderly, who live in public housing.
A new policy aims to do away with smoking in city-owned housing, but many residents are not pleased.
On a breezy Friday afternoon at Guinotte Manor, a public housing subdivision northeast of downtown, Kerrie Terry lights a cigarette and fumes over the changes coming to her building.
“It’s BS,” she says. “It’s against our legal rights as a U.S. citizen.”
After a year and a half of planning and asking for comments, the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Mo., made it official earlier this month: a smoking ban – both inside and outside Housing Authority properties - will go into effect July 1, affecting more than 5,000 people living in about 1,750 apartments and houses.
People in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, or what used to be called Section 8 Housing, won’t be affected. Under that program, residents receive vouchers to live in privately-owned buildings.
HUD encourages ban on smoking
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development first encouraged local housing authorities to ban smoking in 2009. Today, more than 600, or 20 percent, of housing authorities in the United States have done so, according to Jim Bergman, director of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Among them are housing authorities in Boston, Detroit and Houston. Bergman says that a decade ago, only two housing authorities in the country had banned smoking.
The Lawrence – Douglas County Housing Authority in Kansas banned smoking in January 2011, a move prompted by a fire in a senior high rise.
“We’ve had some people who it took a while to get them to respect the policy,” says Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence housing authority.
The Lawrence authority has a six-step enforcement system.
Oury says that while a few residents have violated the ban, particularly in the winter, it has not led to any evictions.
Lawrence – Douglas County appears to be the only public housing authority in Kansas to have banned smoking.
Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the Kansas City Housing Authority, says the ban there, like the one in Lawrence, was prompted by a fire at Brush Creek Towers, a high-rise designated for seniors and the disabled, in July 2012.
“It was a smoker who was smoking in bed who also was on oxygen,” Lowndes says. “He had respiratory issues. And somehow his apartment caught on fire because of his smoking, and it caused a significant amount of damage to the high rise.”
Lowndes says the ban is needed to protect the safety and health of the residents and to shield non-smokers from second-hand smoke. Health advocates also warn of the dangers of “third-hand smoke,” carcinogenic substances that remain in walls and carpets long after smoking has stopped.
The high costs of smoking
The ban is also intended to protect buildings from smoke damage. Lowndes says about a quarter of the residential units change tenants every year, and cleaning up after smokers costs the Housing Authority a lot of money.
“If it’s a light smoker, it might add to our costs about $1,500, just to change it,” Lowndes says. “But if were a heavy smoker that lived in that apartment for a considerable time, it might be a total of $5,000 more than what we’d ordinarily turn.”
He estimates that banning smoking could save the Housing Authority as much as a half a million dollars a year.
Guinotte Manor resident Abdul Salam Ibraheem, an Iraqi refugee who arrived with his family in Kansas City two years ago, supports the ban. He is bothered by the debris of cigarette butts and harmful effects of smoking on children and teenagers in his neighborhood.
“I see girls, young girls - thirteen years, fourteen years – smoke,” Ibraheen says. “I don’t like to see cigarettes in (their) hands. This is not good.”
Ibraheem is not alone. A Mid-America Regional Council survey shows the majority of the residents favor the ban.
For many residents, however, the issue isn’t quitting; it’s one of personal rights. In Kansas City, public housing residents pay 30 percent of their income for rent and, as Allen explains, the idea of home is an emotional issue
“People figure when they got a home, nobody should be able to go into their home and tell them what to do,” she says.
Allen Rostron, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, sympathizes with opponents of the ban but says their arguments don’t have much of a legal basis.
“I can certainly understand why they feel that way, and it is their home, but it is property that belongs to someone else,” Rostron says.
Not only is the Housing Authority a property owner, he says, but it’s also a government agency, which means it has that much more authority to implement a ban.
As for “smoker’s rights,” tenants who light up are not entitled to legal protection in the way, say, that members of racial or religious groups might be. Indeed, local civil liberties groups are not challenging the ban.
“All the government needs to do to regulate smoking is show that the regulation in question is rational,” Rostron says. “It really just has to be something that is at least possible or arguable that it could serve a legitimate government interest of some sort.”
Guinotte Manor resident Rene Lewis, who supports the smoking ban, believes that many of her smoking neighbors will ignore it.
A policy with teeth
“We’re going to have a lot of people who don’t want to abide by what’s right,” she says.
Lowndes insists the Housing Authority won’t be intrusive in enforcing the ban.
“We’re not going to be knocking on doors and going into apartments,” he says.
But the enforcement policy will have teeth, he adds. It will be a three strikes system, with two warnings followed by the possibility of eviction.
Though the consequences could be severe for low-income residents, that doesn’t bother Lewis, who is more concerned about the health of her children than the rights of her smoking neighbors.
“I would report them,” Lewis says. “Because if I have to live by the rules, I feel that you would as well.”
Allen says that though she is somewhat concerned her neighbors might be evicted, she is hopeful the Housing Authority will be flexible.
"Can you imagine someone who's on Social Security, Medicaid or probably not getting any income at all, and they started smoking when they were very young," she asks. "And now you're telling them you've got to quit?"
Allen supports the ban but, along with the Resident Council, pushed for a few accommodations to help smokers. One would offer a grace period for some smokers that would last until the end of the year.
The Housing Authority will also connect with residents with low- or no-cost smoking cessation programs. Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center and the Jackson County Health Department are offering programs specifically designed for residents.
“I think we can go to Housing and discuss it and see what other solutions we can come up with,” Allen says.