By Lewis Kamb
October 31 2012, The News Tribune
The battle over second-hand smoke moved into Tacoma’s publicly subsidized homes and apartments earlier this month , and smoking lost.
In a 2 to 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 impact about 3,000 residents who live throughout the authority’s affordable housing network across the city.
Michael Mirra, the agency’s executive director, said Wednesday 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.”
THA 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 impacts from second-hand 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, the Tacoma agency joins a growing number of public housing authorities nationwide that have gone smoke-free. Housing authorities in Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and Portland, Ore., have adopted similar restrictions. The Seattle Housing Authority enacted a smoking ban in February.
THA is believed 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 smoking 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 held meetings with residents at 18 locations and conducted a survey that found most THA residents support smoke-free living.
“I want to stress that we’re not exluding 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 THA-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 THA.
“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.”
But Rumbaugh, who did not immediately return a phone call for comment Wednesday, was out-numbered by fellow commissioners who favored the policy.
They included Commissioner Greg Mowat and Chairwoman Janis Flauding, a resident of THA’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 second-hand 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 exactly 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 also come with help, THA officials added. The health department and its partner, Tobacco Free Alliance of Pierce County, will offer “smoking cessation services” to any THA residents who seek them. That includes personalized quit-smoking plans, nicotine patches and gum, and access to hotlines and support groups.
THA also joins a growing list of landlords in Pierce County to ban smoking under the health department’s two-year-old “smoke-free housing” campaign, which so far 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 that funds the program.