DECATUR — Residents who live at Decatur Housing Authority properties will soon be barred from smoking there as part of a nationwide smoking ban for federally subsidized public housing, and local officials are bracing for blowback.
While the ban will take effect next summer, the housing authority defined its policy last month and has started to tell the nearly 500 families it houses about the change. The move angered some who feel the agency is overstepping its bounds.
“I need to quit, but I’ll quit when I feel like quitting, not when you tell me to quit like I’m some 3-year-old,” said Joann Greenwood, a resident of the Lexington High Rise, a six-story building on the city's west side.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development directive bans smoking at least 25 feet from public housing, and all 3,100 public housing authorities in the country must have a policy in place by Aug. 1.
The Decatur Housing Authority board, which approved its guidelines in September, took the extra step of a no-smoking policy anywhere on the agency's property, including the grounds. It also included a ban on e-cigarettes.
“Not in your apartment, not in your house, not in the common areas, not on the property,” said Terri Goodman, the local agency's director of finance.
That's a problem for residents like Greenwood, who said she already smokes outside but dreads walking all the way across the street in frigid weather.
Local officials worried that simply enforcing a no-smoking policy in the building and away from the doorway wouldn’t work and would force residents and visitors to cross through a cloud of smoke to get into the buildings. The easiest thing seemed to ban smoking altogether, Goodman said.
There will be a three-strikes rule. A resident who is caught smoking on Decatur Housing Authority property will get a warning. On the third violation of the rule, they will be evicted from the property and their lease terminated.
The policy encompasses the agency's 478 units throughout Decatur, including the Lexington High Rise, Hartford High Rise, Concord High Rise, the Garden Apartments and the scattered site residences.
It does not apply to the roughly 1,100 families living in Section 8 housing because they receive vouchers and sign leases with private companies with their own regulations.
The federal agency, HUD, announced the new rule Nov 30, 2016. It applies to the estimated 1.2 million households living in public housing units across the country, managed by some 3,000 housing authorities.
In announcing the rule last year, HUD officials said they hoped to protect residents and staff from secondhand smoke, reduce the risk of fires and lower maintenance costs.
The federal agency left it up to local housing authorities to determine whether to build smoking shelters that complied with the distance requirements. Decatur Housing Authority leaders opted not to do so, with Goodman expressing concerns at last month's board meeting that a smoking shack could start a “turf war” between residents or gangs over who could smoke there. Officials also worried a smoking area could become a place for illegal or undesirable behavior.
Goodman said the local agency is looking for resources to encourage and help the residents to quit smoking.
Housing authority officials visited the Lexington High Rise building in August to tell the residents about the smoking ban and provide information about quitting, Greenwood said. But the way the officials handled the situation upset her and others.
“How can you not smoke on the grounds? They are just getting carried away with it,” said Alvis Young, another Lexington resident. “Smokers still have some kind of rights.”
Young said he understands that people shouldn’t smoke inside a government building, but he doesn’t agree with the extent of the ban and thinks the agency shouldn't be involved in the health decisions of residents.
“It causes cancer, but what's wrong with it?” he said. “I don’t agree with a lot of things they do, and I’m not trying to ban what they do.”
Currently, anyone who is caught smoking marijuana is evicted. The smoking ban will help enforce that rule as well, Goodman said.
Every resident will be required to sign a new lease that reflects the new smoke-free policy.
Goodman said 150 residents attended an informational meeting held by the housing authority, and there were big feelings on both sides of the issue.
“People who are not smokers think it's great, and people who are smokers are upset,” Executive Director Jim Alpi said. But ultimately, “it’s out of our control.”