Local housing authority’s policy predates federal ‘no smoking’ initiative

November 27, 2015
A sign on the wall at Crumrine Towers reflects the county’s ban on smoking in public housing developments. - Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

A fire three years ago – triggered by a cigarette – that injured 13 residents of public housing in North Charleroi prompted Washington County Housing Authority to ban indoor smoking in all apartments it manages.

Washington County is among more than 500 public housing agencies that have implemented smoke-free policies in at least one of their buildings, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which put Americans on notice that HUD is going to require each public housing agency to implement a smoke-free policy in all living units, indoor common areas in public housing and all administrative offices.

The Nov. 20, 2012, fire at Nathan Goff Apartments sent 13 people to Mon Valley Hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation and caused more than $50,000 in damage to the building. The cause of the fire was a lit cigarette.

A few months after the blaze, Washington County Housing Authority board discussed a cigarette smoking ban at a public meeting, enacted the policy applying to all 12 public housing projects and noted it in the annual five- to seven-year plan submitted to HUD, said Stephen Hall, executive director of the Washington County Housing Authority.

“We had some very angry people who came to our board meetings,” Hall said.

The smokers claimed the board was infringing on their rights, but Hall said there is no “civil right to smoking. We went ahead and implemented the policy. Over the years, we have had quite a few people from the other side thank us for that.”

No one challenged the Washington County Housing Authority’s smoking ban in court. Noncompliance can result in eviction. The no-smoking policy was added to residents’ leases, and the board’s attitude toward disgruntled smokers was “either sign it or move,” Hall said.

The proposed federal ban on smoking in public housing would also extend to all outdoor areas up to 25 feet away from the buildings “to improve indoor air quality in the housing, benefit the health of public housing residents and public housing authority staff, reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and lower overall maintenance costs,” according to information prepared for publication in the Federal Register.

HUD estimates that 58 million Americans are exposed to secondhand smoke, including 15 million children between 3 and 11, and the home is the primary source of exposure for children.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in multi-unit properties.

In 2011, smoking caused 17,600 residential fires resulting in 490 civilian deaths, 1,370 injuries and $516 million in direct property damage.

Smoking is especially dangerous in units where a household member is receiving oxygen for medical purposes.

Maintenance costs related to cleaning and renovating a unit that smokers have vacated, according to HUD. A survey of those who manage public and subsidized housing found that the additional cost of rehabilitating the units of smokers averaged $1,250 to $2,955 per unit, depending on the intensity of smoking.

The ban does not apply to federally-subsidized housing, known as Section 8. In the case of multi-unit buildings because non-public housing units may be contained within a building. HUD notes that “the risk of fire and the increased unit turnover costs remain.”

HUD’s prohibition does not currently include electronic cigarettes, but the final rule, which would take effect in 2017, may prohibit these devices.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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