No smok­ing in public hous­ing

Our view: Trump should look at HUD’s smok­ing ban as a ques­tion of good busi­ness

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Sun re­porter Colin Camp­bell got an ear­ful when he went to Perkins Homes to ask res­i­dents what they thought about the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment’s plan to ban smok­ing in all of its public hous­ing units and within 25 feet of its build­ings. The smok­ers he talked to asked, in lan­guage more col­or­ful than you find in the com­ments sec­tion of the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, how­such a rule could pos­si­bly be en­forced, what HUD could do about it if they caught you smok­ing and, gen­er­ally, what right the agency has to tell you what to do in your own­home. Good ques­tions, all, and ones hous­ing agen­cies in Bal­ti­more and across the coun­try will be grap­pling with in the months ahead.

The ra­tio­nale from HUD’s per­spec­tive is pretty straight­for­ward. It is a land­lord, and it has to make cost-ben­e­fit cal­cu­la­tions re­lated to the poli­cies it sets out in its leases. Es­tab­lish­ing this rule won’t be free. It in­volves re-writ­ing leases, ed­u­cat­ing res­i­dents and en­forc­ing the ban. But it also comes with sub­stan­tial sav­ings. Non-smok­ing apart­ments come with fewer main­te­nance and turnover costs, and fires as­so­ci­ated with smok­ing are com­mon and ex­pen­sive. About a third of HUD units are al­ready non-smok­ing un­der a vol­un­tary pro­gram, and man­agers there have re­ported that the costs of go­ing smoke-free were less than an­tic­i­pated.

But the Perkins Home smok­ers’ ques­tions re­main. En­force­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, was a ma­jor is­sue as HUD con­tem­plated the rule, with hous­ing agen­cies balk­ing at the idea that they would be forced to di­vert staff to be­come smok­ing po­lice and res­i­dents wor­ried that re­ly­ing on com­plaints to iden­tify vi­o­la­tions would lead to con­flicts. How­ever, that ob­jec­tion may un­der­es­ti­mate the de­gree to which smok­ing al­ready causes con­flicts in public hous­ing (and multi-fam­ily hous­ing gen­er­ally). Sec­ond-hand smoke has been shown to travel through ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems, un­der doors, through win­dows or even through walls. What smok­ing ten­ants do in their homes does af­fect their neigh­bors.

What hap­pens when a ten­ant is caught vi­o­lat­ing the rule is a ma­jor con­cern. HUD is re­quir­ing that the no-smok­ing clause be an en­force­able pro­vi­sion of ten­ants’ leases, mean­ing that vi­o­la­tions could lead to evic­tions. Given that public hous­ing res­i­dents of­ten have few, if any, other op­tions for safe hous­ing, there is a real risk that over-zeal­ous en­force­ment could cast some res­i­dents into home­less­ness.

HUD is largely leav­ing it up to lo­cal hous­ing agen­cies to de­cide how to en­force the rule, and we would en­cour­age them to adopt a grad­u­ated set of en­force­ment tools that leave evic­tions as a last (and ex­tremely rare) re­sort. HUD pro­vides sub­stan­tial guid­ance based on the ex­pe­ri­ence of agen­cies that have al­ready gone smoke-free, with both neg­a­tive en­force­ment ac­tions (like fines) and pos­i­tive ones (like smok­ing ces­sa­tion pro­grams and ac­com­mo­da­tions to make com­pli­ance eas­ier).

The new rule doesn’t re­quire hous­ing agen­cies to pro­vide smok­ers with help quit­ting or to es­tab­lish des­ig­nated smok­ing ar­eas, but both are good ideas, and both ease the long-term dif­fi­cul­ties of en­force­ment. Smok­ing ar­eas can come with start-up costs, but such fa­cil­i­ties make it eas­ier for smok­ers to know how far from build­ings they need to be, and they mit­i­gate fears that smok­ers will be dis­placed to un­safe en­vi­ron­ments.

The other big ques­tion hang­ing over this new rule is whether Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion will re­verse it. Mr. Trump has never smoked (nor does he drink al­co­hol), and many of his prop­er­ties are smoke-free. His run­ning mate, In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence, once fa­mously wrote that “smok­ing doesn’t kill” in an es­say rail­ing against gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of tobacco. “The rel­e­vant ques­tion is, what is more harm­ful to the na­tion, sec­ond hand smoke or back handed big gov­ern­ment dis­guised in do-gooder health­care rhetoric?”

But the new ad­min­is­tra­tion should look at this not as an is­sue of per­sonal free­dom but of the real es­tate busi­ness; af­ter all, Mr. Trump is about to be the land­lord for nearly 1.2 mil­lion units na­tion­wide. One study found that it costs an ex­tra $1,674 on av­er­age to pre­pare an apart­ment for a new ten­ant if a smoker lived there be­fore. Fires from smok­ing cost HUD $4.7 mil­lion a year. In all, a mid-range es­ti­mate for the fis­cal ef­fects of the pol­icy sug­gests to­tal sav­ings of more than $200 mil­lion a year. If Mr. Trump is go­ing to get bet­ter deals for the Amer­i­can peo­ple, keep­ing this rule would be a good place to start.

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