The battle over secondhand smoke moved into Tacoma’s publicly subsidized homes and apartments in October – and smoking lost.
In a 2-1 vote last week, the Tacoma Housing Authority’s board of commissioners outlawed smoking inside all of the agency’s 1,400 dwellings.
The ban, which is set to take effect March 1, will apply to about 3,000 people who live throughout the authority’s affordable housing network across the city.
Michael Mirra, the agency’s executive director, said Wednesday that the policy is “necessary for THA to fulfill its fundamental obligations – as both a landlord and an employer – to provide a safe and healthy environment.”
The Housing Authority already had prohibited smoking in common areas, but the new policy will apply to all indoor spaces, including inside rented apartments and homes. The ban also will apply to designated outdoor areas, such as patios and balconies.
Health effects from secondhand smoke and concerns over the costs of insurance and maintaining housing units where smokers have lived largely spurred efforts to adopt the policy, Mirra said.
“It’s real expensive to clean a unit that had been occupied by a smoker,” he said. “We think maybe on average it costs a couple thousand dollars per unit. So this will save us money, and it reduces fire risks.”
With the move, Tacoma’s agency joins a growing number of public housing authorities nationwide that have gone smoke-free. Housing authorities in Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and Portland have adopted similar restrictions. The Seattle Housing Authority enacted a smoking ban in February.
The Tacoma Housing Authority is thought to be the largest public housing landlord in Pierce County to join the movement. Smoking is allowed in public housing owned by the Pierce County Housing Authority and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, public health officials said.
The ban came after a nine-month review that included consultation with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to educate residents and gauge their feelings. Public health officials met with residents at 18 locations and conducted a survey that found most residents support smoke-free living.
“I want to stress that we’re not excluding smokers from our properties,” Mirra added. “Smokers can still live in our properties; they just can’t smoke inside of them.”
The ban doesn’t come without detractors.
“We have some people that are smokers and don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Hope Rehn, a resident of the Housing Authority-owned Wright Street Apartments who chairs the non-profit Seniors Advocating For Equality. “They don’t feel this is right.”
SAFE, as the resident council is known, represents an estimated 400 seniors who live in 345 senior housing units owned by the Housing Authority.
“In my building, there are senior and disabled residents and many of them have been smoking for years,” Rehn said. “They’re not about to quit. Then, you have the disabled who can’t really get out of their apartments to smoke outside.”
Stan Rumbaugh, the lone commissioner to vote against the new policy at the board’s Oct. 24 meeting, opposed it based on concerns for disabled and senior residents, Mirra said.
“Stan acknowledged the health issues, as well as the cost savings,” Mirra said. “His concern was with the tenants who were smokers who perhaps for reasons of frailty or disability wouldn’t so easily be able to go outside to smoke.”
Rumbaugh, who did not immediately return a phone call for comment Wednesday, was outnumbered by fellow commissioners who favored the policy.
They included Commissioner Greg Mowat and Chairwoman Janis Flauding, a resident of the Housing Authority’s Salishan community and a smoker herself.
“I’ve always been an outside smoker, so it didn’t affect me personally,” Flauding said of the policy. “But I really felt that it was something that was right for our residents to be able to live in a clean-air environment.”
Flauding was convinced not only by the authority’s potential cost savings, she said, but by details of the grim effects of secondhand smoke and the fact that nothing can effectively prevent it in a multi-family dwelling.
“It really came down to the health of our people,” she said. “It was not a hard decision.”
Specifics about how the authority will enforce the ban or where it will create designated smoking areas remain to be seen, Flauding said. But officials will have more than four months to work out such details, she noted.
The ban will come with help, Housing Authority officials added. The health department and its partner, Tobacco Free Alliance of Pierce County, will offer “smoking-cessation services” to any Housing Authority residents who seek them. That includes personalized quit-smoking plans, nicotine patches and gum, and access to hotlines and support groups.
The Tacoma Housing Authority joins a growing list of landlords in Pierce County to ban smoking under the health department’s 2-year-old “smoke-free housing” campaign, which has enlisted 90 private properties to the smokeless ranks.
“We’re always looking for more folks to bring into the smoke-free or tobacco-free realm,” said Kathleen MacGuire, a coordinator for the department’s Community Transformation Partnership grant, which funds the program.