Smoking targeted in public housing

Many properties are becoming smoke-free

Michelle Ye Hee Lee – Jul. 4, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

Jim Lamb is leading a campaign in his Phoenix apartment complex to get non-smoking residents to identify themselves by posting a sign outside their door.

Lamb wants to show apartment staff and other residents how many people in the building support smoke-free living. There is a designated smoking area at Sunnyslope Manor, a federally funded senior home, but Lamb wants the property to go entirely smoke-free.

“It makes sense for everybody,” said Lamb, 73. “We’re not saying they can’t smoke. It’s just where they can smoke.”

More residents in public housing have been speaking out in recent months on their concerns about secondhand smoke, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended its multifamily and public-housing properties implement smoke-free policies. Since then, several of the Valley’s federally funded housing complexes have gone completely or partially smoke-free.

Non-smoking residents in HUD properties who have caught wind of the new policies have been contacting the county Department of Public Health to see what could be done about their apartment complexes, said Sue Bergquist, smoke-free multihousing liaison at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

The growing demand from residents has compelled the department to assess how many Valley properties have gone smoke-free so that residents who want to move can at least have a list of properties to choose from. Bergquist also works with properties that are considering a smoking ban and educates residents about secondhand smoking and the impact one resident’s smoking could have on another.

“What I try to talk about when I go to properties is, this isn’t about taking your right away to smoke. All we’re doing is asking you to smoke in a place where it won’t harm your neighbor,” Bergquist said.

Properties looking to go smoke-free must follow certain HUD guidelines. They can designate smoking areas or go totally smoke-free. They can’t deny rentals to anyone just because they smoke and can’t require existing tenants who smoke to move out or transfer to another unit.

Robert Howarth, 61, likes living in Pine Towers, a senior home in Phoenix. But he said he is worried about secondhand smoke and the possibility of fire. He wants to see the property ban all smoking.

“You can’t even sit on the bench (outside) without someone sitting down next to you and blowing smoke in your face,” Howarth said. “I don’t see why we can’t adopt a (smoke-free) policy here.”

Staff at properties that have gone smoke-free said the change has proven to be a smart business decision.

It saves properties several thousand dollars a year in fees to clean units before turning them over to a new resident, they said. It also decreases the fire risk, especially in senior homes where residents might fall asleep or have a medical attack without extinguishing their cigarettes.

The reaction has been mixed, however, among residents at properties that have adopted smoke-free policies. Some moved out. Others finally kicked the habit.

Waymark Gardens, a senior home in Glendale, went partially smoke-free in June. The designated smoking area is in the center of the complex. Residents were given one year’s notice that the property will go smoke-free.

Lisa Sunderlin, the property’s administrator, said it costs up to $5,000 to renovate an apartment so that there is no trace of smoke left. Sometimes, the walls are yellowed and need to be stripped and repainted.

The outdoor smoking area has become a social gathering place of sorts. But smoking in the heat is not ideal for the elderly, some residents said.

While residents say no ban will stop a longtime smoker from lighting a cigarette, it is a hassle to trek out to the designated smoking area.

“When I was in the house, I’d smoke all the time because all I had to do was get out my cigarettes,” said Estella Burks, 73, a Waymark Gardens resident. “We’ve been doing it all these years, you know? It’s kind of hard.”

Likewise, Lamb’s smoke-free campaign at Sunnyslope Manor has not been popular among smokers.

“When I want to (quit), that’d be nice,” said resident Al Jackson.

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