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Public smoking ban in public housing

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing a smoking ban. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GettyImages

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing a smoking ban in the one-point-two million units of public housing it oversees. But this isn’t just a ban on smoking in public areas. It would extend to the inside of people’s apartments, too.

Thirty-seven-year-old Equanda Willis lives in a public housing complex in Brooklyn, NY, and has been smoking for two decades. She started for the same reason many teenagers do: she thought it looked cool. Then, she got hooked. And while she’d like to quit, she doesn’t think the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has the right to tell her what to do in her own home.

“I believe that people should be able to smoke,” Willis said. “If they pay rent there, they should be able to smoke where they want to smoke.”

Public housing tenants typically pay around 30 percent of their income, whatever it is, in rent. The rest is subsidized. The HUD proposal has led some residents, including Willis, to question how it would be enforced.

“It’s gonna be kind of hard,” Willis said. “Not unless they’re gonna have security guards standing at people’s apartments sniffing out smoke. I don’t understand how it’s gonna work.” 

New York City has the largest public housing authority in the United States. Around 400,000 residents live in public housing developments. 

Alfred Woods, also a smoker, said he worries what will happen to public housing residents who can’t quit.

“It’s gonna be unfortunate for low-income people and poor people who smoke, to be evicted over smoking in the apartment,” Woods said. “Which is going to cause a great dilemma for living situations.”

Sunia Zaterman is the executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a non-profit that represents 70 of the largest housing authorities in the country. She said the goal of the ban would be to reduce smoking, not to evict smokers and it would start with education, not punishment. 

“We do have a number of housing authorities that have experience in undertaking these kinds of policies and implementing them,” Zaterman said.

For its part, HUD said residents’ concerns are, in part, exactly why it has opened the proposed ban up to a period of public comment.

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