KC public housing units will soon go smoke-free, pleasing some residents and infuriating others

05/07/2014 6:18 PM

05/07/2014 6:18 PM

It’s one thing to ban smoking from bars and restaurants, as Kansas City did in 2008 following years of fierce debate.

It’s quite another to say people can’t smoke in their own homes and yards — yet that’s precisely what the Kansas City Housing Authority is preparing to do.

The agency’s board has approved a policy to go completely smoke-free at all its publicly owned developments, indoors and even on outdoor grounds. The move affects more than 1,700 residential units and about 5,000 adults and children living in Kansas City public housing.

Some residents are quite angry about it, and at least two advocacy groups have concerns.

“I want the right to smoke in my apartment. That’s the bottom line,” said Juia Leggett, who lives with her husband, also a smoker, in the TB Watkins development at 13th and Vine streets.

But Edwin Lowndes, Kansas City Housing Authority executive director, said smoking is a proven unhealthy activity for the smokers as well as nonsmokers around them.

“I have to provide a healthy environment for all my families to live in,” Lowndes said.

The smoking ban takes effect July 1. Residents who smoke can seek a six-month extension but must quit smoking in their units by Jan. 1, 2015.

Kansas City follows more than a dozen other large housing authorities on the coasts as well as Minneapolis, Detroit and Houston. But Lowndes said Kansas City is one of the largest public housing authorities in the region to take this step.

“I do think we’re the trend-setter for the Midwest,” he said. “In talking to my colleagues both in Kansas and Missouri, they have been considering it but wanted somebody else to go first.”

Donovan Mouton, chairman of the Housing Authority board, watched Kansas City’s contentious argument over eliminating smoking from bars and restaurants when he was an aide to then-Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes. He expected a lot of opposition this time around but didn’t hear it.

“It was surprising,” Mouton said. “We have been hearing from people, nonsmokers, who were worried about the secondary smoke, especially among our seniors.”

But an estimated 40 percent of the residents smoke, and some of them are furious. Some say they became aware of the debate just a few weeks before the board’s April 16 vote on the new policy.

Leggett has been busy taking care of her disabled husband and wasn’t aware of the debate until a notice was put on her door about a month ago. She said she pays $405 in rent per month for her TB Watkins apartment and had no idea “that they would try to pull something this ludicrous.”

Beverly Moore, who lives in the Riverview Gardens development in Old Northeast, agreed, even though she is in the process of quitting smoking for reasons other than the new policy.

“I really just don’t think they should be able to dictate what you can do in the privacy of your own home,” she said.

The Public Housing Resident Council, which represents the tenants, endorsed the policy but thought residents would be given more time to adapt, said Martha Allen, council president.

“I’ve been supportive of quitting smoking probably all my life,” said Allen, a nonsmoker who had an uncle and a brother die from smoking-related diseases.

But she’s sympathetic to how hard it is to quit. “I have concerns for the people because it’s easy to say, ‘Don’t smoke,’ but some people have smoked 40 and 50 years. To stop them right away ... we need more time for that.”

Housing Authority officials say that’s why they’re giving existing residents until the end of the year, but Allen said that’s probably not enough time. She said if it proves too difficult for residents to quit, the board will have to reconsider the policy “because we don’t want a rebellion.”

Studies show nicotine is so addictive that quitting smoking can be terribly difficult.

That’s an issue for Melissa Robinson, executive director of the Black Health Care Coalition, which was told about the initiative last year because 80 percent of the Housing Authority families are African-American.

She said her organization is concerned about “the potential that residents in public housing may be evicted and facing homelessness due to nicotine addiction.”

Getting people to quit smoking is very important to promote healthier communities, she said. But she had been led to believe that the Housing Authority’s policy would take effect more gradually, and she was upset at the short time frame.

Mouton responded that the health benefits outweigh the concerns and it’s time to get started. He added that the board will monitor the policy’s implementation and can make adjustments if it proves too difficult.

Lowndes says the Housing Authority posted the policy, surveyed residents a year ago with the help of the Mid-America Regional Council, did extensive outreach and solicited comment for months that showed majority support.

Smoking cessation information and classes will be provided, and Lowndes noted that other housing authorities have successfully implemented comprehensive policies despite initial resistance.

“Public housing is a federally subsidized benefit, and we can implement reasonable rules,” he said. “The health piece is the most important. The smoker here is impacting the nonsmoker here.”

The smoking ban initiative here was sparked, literally, by a July 2012 fire on the ninth floor of the 12-floor Brush Creek Towers, 1800 Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. A resident on oxygen was smoking a cigarette, which flared and caused his apartment to catch fire.

He wound up in the University of Kansas burn unit, Lowndes said, and although he survived, he didn’t return to Brush Creek. His unit and another had fire damage, and six others had water damage that ultimately cost close to $250,000 to repair, Lowndes said.

The Housing Authority realized smoking was a serious safety issue, as well as a health problem. It has also calculated that it costs an average of several thousand dollars to repair, clean and turn over a smoker’s unit, versus about $500 per unit for nonsmoking residents.

Some places, such as Denver, have chosen to implement their smoking bans gradually and over a period of years. Bob Prettyman, chief operating officer of housing management for the Denver Housing Authority, said they have sought extensive tenant input and buy-in, and are banning smoking from units in new or rehabbed buildings before extending it systemwide.

Mouton said that, at first, he thought Kansas City might just implement the policy in its two highrises, Brush Creek and Pemberton Heights. But he said supporters pushed to extend it to all the publicly owned developments, although it does not affect Section 8 housing vouchers or properties with both subsidized and market rate units, because they have other owners and landlords.

The ban extends to public housing courtyards and other grounds, Lowndes said, because otherwise people congregate around doorways that become smokers’ dens.

“If you’re going to say no smoking, you have to make it comprehensive,” Lowndes said.

Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development first began encouraging housing authorities to implement smoke-free policies in 2009. She said more than 20 of the organization’s 70 member authorities have adopted these policies in the past few years.

“I would predict that over the next two years, we’re going to see many more housing authorities doing this,” she said.

But it remains rare in many privately owned apartment complexes, said Sam Alpert, who represents apartment owners and managers locally through the Heartland Apartment Association.

“It’s still a little bit unique,” Alpert said. “The character and quality of the buildings themselves matters a lot. If the smoke is migrating from one unit to the next, that’s a different concern than if it’s not.”

Lowndes said smoking in public housing units will be treated as a lease violation. The first two violations can result in a warning, but the third could result in lease termination. There is an appeals process, and Lowndes said it may be possible to move smokers who truly can’t quit into other properties where it is still allowed.

Lowndes said the goal isn’t to evict people.

“Our objective is to help them be compliant,” he said. “We want a safe, healthy environment.”

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