For Minneapolis public housing, a smoking ban

By Randy Furst
Star Tribune, April 28, 2012

Puffing on a generic cigarette in her 10th-floor efficiency apartment near downtown Minneapolis, Mary McGovern says she has been smoking for 44 years and doesn’t want to stop.

But her high-rise is public housing. This week McGovern learned that after two years of discussion, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has decided to ban smoking in its 5,000 units.

Housing Authority officials say they are concerned about the health of residents who smoke, as well as the effects of secondhand smoke on children, the elderly and those with chronic conditions, plus the fire hazard posed by smoking. The ban would be phased in over five years, although details have yet to be worked out, said Mary Boler, the authority’s managing director of low-income public housing.

By going smoke-free, the Minneapolis authority will join Duluth and more than 230 housing authorities nationwide that have banned smoking in some or all of their residential units.

But some residents are fuming.

“I think everybody has a right to do what they want in their own private apartment,” said McGovern, 62, president of the residents’ council at the Elliot Twins, two high-rises at 1225 S. 8th St. and 1212 S. 9th St.

While the authority’s tenant advisory committee approved the ban this week, the Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council, the main public housing tenants group, opposes it. The council favors smoke-free buildings, but also wants some high-rises to remain open to smokers.

Outdated air systems

“I am sure the residents will put up a fight,” said Matt Gerard, the council’s president.

Boler said a recent survey of 10 of the authority’s small buildings found that 34 percent of 155 residents smoked in their apartments, while 49 percent said they would like their building to be smoke-free.

She said that the older high-rises have outdated air circulation systems in which fresh air is pumped into the hallways, flows under the apartment doors, and is expelled via the apartment units’ bathroom fans.

Smoking is already banned in public housing common areas and is limited to the apartments, Boler said. But smoke seeps out of the units and into the hallways and then can drift into the apartments of nonsmokers.

Judith Farrier, 72, a nonsmoker and member of the high-rise council, knows what Boler is talking about. She lives next door to a smoker. “It doesn’t happen that often,” she says, “but I can come into my apartment sometimes, and swear that someone was smoking there. That’s how strong it is.”

Minneapolis’ smoke-free initiative has its roots in a 2009 recommendation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, urging public housing authorities nationwide to implement nonsmoking policies.

As of January 2011, about 7 percent of the nation’s 3,200 public housing authorities have adopted smoke-free policies for all or some of their units. Boston’s authority banned smoking this year, as did San Diego County. Maine became the first state in the nation to ban smoking in all public housing units, starting this year. The city of Duluth has phased in a smoke-free policy for its six high-rises.

In 2010, Boler says, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority began meeting with resident councils about the idea of going smoke-free. There are now four buildings with a total of 220 units where smoking is banned, including the new Thomas T. Feeney Manor for 48 assisted-living residents.

Under the new policy, Boler said, smokers would be allowed to light up outside the buildings, albeit at least 25 feet from the doors. Under a strict prohibition, she said, a failure to abide by the smoke-free policy could lead to eviction.

‘Can smell it through doors’

After a heated debate this week, the tenant advisory committee voted 5-3 to support the ban, said Doug Schelske, the committee chair, who backed the ban. “If you smoke in the apartments, it will go all through the system,” he says. “I can smell it through the doors.”

Another committee member, Flo Castner, 73, a former executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, voted against the ban. “I recognize the arguments and the dangers of secondhand smoke,” she said, noting that she suffers from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. But she said that to tell someone “they cannot do a perfectly legal thing in their own home is a real overreach.”

Lara Tiede, manager of the Minneapolis Health Department’s Healthy Living initiative, said she applauded the Housing Authority’s smoke-free plan. The department will offer support services to residents, linking them to smoking cessation programs in nearby clinics and translating materials into many languages.

“There’s so much focus on the smokers,” Tiede said. “There is not enough focus on the majority of residents who do not smoke and who do not have alternative housing options and want to live in smoke-free environments. … There’s no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

Randy Furst o 612-673-4224

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