Annapolis Housing Authority smoking ban inflames residents

Capital (Annapolis, MD), 2014-04-28

Carl Watts Sr. could not have picked a better afternoon to step outside for a smoke.

The sky above the benches in front of the Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments was clear and blue. The smells of spring and smoke danced lightly through the air.

In May 2011 , the public housing complex banned residents from smoking inside their apartment units, meaning unless Watts wants to face possible eviction, he needs to go outside for a cigarette.

Watts burns in his opposition to the rule.

Smokers such as Watts living in Annapolis' 790 public-housing units likely have only a few more days of worry-free smoking inside. The Board of Commissioners of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis approved a resolution on April 14 extending the inside smoking ban to all public housing properties.

The ban is part of the Housing Authority's annual five-year plan, as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development . The resolution is currently under a 30-day holding period for public comments.

Under the smoking ban, residents can smoke outside of Housing Authority properties.

Banning smoking indoors is both practical and a matter of public health, said Vincent Leggett , executive director of the Housing Authority.

Thirty percent of cancer deaths are caused by tobacco use, according to the American Cancer Society . The organization estimates 10,500 people are expected to die of cancer in Maryland in 2014.

The ban would prevent smoke damage and possible fires in public housing, Leggett said.

"It's an initiative that HUD has really urged housing authorities across the nation to take, so we really wanted to raise that banner," he said.

HUD issued notices to public housing authorities in 2009 and 2012 encouraging the implementation of smoke-free policies. The notices cited the increased cost of renovating public housing units vacated by smokers.

"Additional paint to cover smoke stains, cleaning of the ducts, replacing stained window blinds, or replacing carpets that have been damaged by cigarettes can increase the cost to make a unit occupant ready," according to HUD's 2012 notice on "Smoke-Free Policies in Public Housing ."

The Morris H. Blum building is one of three facilities with public housing residents in Annapolis to have a prohibition on indoor smoking. Annapolis Gardens and Obery Court also banned indoor smoking after recent renovations, Leggett said.

The Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County prohibits smoking in indoor and common areas, but not residents' homes, according to Clifton Martin , executive director of the county agency.

While the Housing Authority annually inspects units for housekeeping standards, certain units also are annually inspected and scored by HUD. If a housing authority scores poorly on its physical inspection, HUD can impose penalties, terminate contracts or reduce payments.

Facing financial penalties, housing authorities try to ensure units meet federal standards. For residents, a failure to maintain standards can sometimes lead to lease violations and eviction.

The smoking ban will be enforced through the Housing Authority's annual inspections, Leggett said. Maintenance crews also would examine units for signs of smoking while making repairs.

Critics of the ban wonder why the Housing Authority focused on smoking instead of the poor condition of certain units. The Newtowne 20 and Morris Blum complexes are in need of more than a combined $9 million in rehabilitation, according to the Housing Authority's Aug. 30 Physical Needs Assessment and Energy Audit.

With the exception of Watts, all residents interviewed for this article declined to provide their names.

The adult daughter of a resident of the Robinwood complex said maintenance work has not occurred on her mother's unit, despite a request made six months ago.

"Isn't there something else they got to worry about other than people smoking cigarettes?" she asked.

A man sitting outside a Harbour House apartment while smoking a cigarette scoffed at the Housing Authority's ability to enforce a smoking ban.

"You're in the wrong neighborhood for that," he said.

A resident in the Morris Blum building described the anti- smoking resolution as an imposition.

"I pay my rent," she said. "I want to come home and smoke my cigarette. Why do I got to come outside and smoke?"

Leggett said a prohibition on indoor smoking would not infringe on residents' rights.

"Nobody has the constitutional right to smoke," Leggett said.

The enforcement of the ban concerns Lisa Marie Sarro , supervising attorney with Maryland's Legal Aid bureau. Legal Aid often represents public-housing tenants during eviction proceedings and helped draft some of the changes to Housing Authority policies noted in the five-year plan.

The health issues related to smoking and second-hand smoke are undeniable, Sarro said. But she hopes the Housing Authority does not use the policy to threaten residents with eviction.

"Our biggest concern is they are not going to have the funds or resources available to kindly and gently move their other buildings to a non-smoking status," Sarro said.

The Housing Authority's enforcement of the ban will involve three steps, Leggett said. First-time violators will receive counseling on smoking cessation; second-time violators will have a letter placed in their Housing Authority file, Leggett said.

Residents who violate the policy a third time face possible eviction, he said.

"Once you get a case or two that works its way through to the court and the court maintains the right for HACA to uphold its property, that's going to send a chilling effect through many of the communities," Leggett said.

Some residents, such as Connie Turner , are not concerned about the prohibition against indoor smoking. Turner, a resident of the Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments for more than 14 years, harbors no animosity toward smokers but understands the reasoning behind the policy.

"It's bad for your health," Turner said.

Others, such as Watts, remain unconvinced.

"I don't think you're going to stop it," Watts said. "If people want to smoke, they're going to smoke."