In six days, New York City Housing Authority tenants can breathe a little easier.
Starting July 30, smoking will be banned inside all NYCHA developments, including the 21 complexes in Queens, from Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses — the largest public housing development in North America — to a 20-tower complex in Woodside.
Combined, those 21 developments contain 15,716 apartments and house tens of thousands of tenants. Overall, about 400,000 New Yorkers call NYCHA apartments home.
The anti-smoking policy was first proposed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 and, in 2017, HUD mandated that all public housing that receives federal funding must ban smoking by July 30.
“Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful secondhand cigarette smoke,” said former HUD Secretary Julián Castro. “HUD’s smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities. By working collaboratively with public housing agencies, HUD’s rule will create healthier homes for all of our families and prevent devastating and costly smoking-related fires.
In 2017, the city Community Health Survey reported that 15 percent of Queens residents smoke, but that does not stop the other 85 percent from encountering secondhand smoke. A February report by DOHMH revealed that 40 percent of New Yorkers say they are exposed to secondhand smoke at home.
“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and these troubling data show that too many New Yorkers are being exposed to that danger – especially in communities of color,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. “Exposure to secondhand smoke can put families at higher risk of stroke and other tobacco-related illnesses. We continue to encourage all New Yorkers to adopt smoke-free policies in their homes in order to protect their health and the health of their family.”
According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYCHA residents “smoke at higher rates than other New Yorkers, and suffer from higher rates of chronic disease including heart disease, diabetes, and asthma,” Gotham Gazette reported.
Those who do not smoke are still at risk from secondhand smoke, which seeps through vents, open windows and cracks in walls.
The effort to remove dangerous second-hand smoke from public housing comes as the city and state struggle to combat other health hazards inside the sprawling public housing system. Lead paint has been found in hundreds of Queens NYCHA apartments and has been associated with elevated lead levels in up to 820 residents citywide. Last winter, busted boilers forced thousands of residents to go without heat or hot water.
Getting NYC to Be Smoke Free
The NYC Smoke Free program was implemented by Public Health Solutions, a New York nonprofit. It was designed to educate New Yorkers about the risks of secondhand smoke and prepare tenants for the policy. NYCHA required all tenants to sign new leases reflecting the smoking ban earlier this month.
According to NYC Smoke Free, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for nearly 500,000 deaths annually. In New York City, the organization says, 12,000 residents die from a smoking-related illnesses every year.
Ahead of the smoking ban, NYC Smoke Free Director Deidre Sully spoke with the Queens Daily Eagle about the risks of secondhand smoke, the challenge of informing tenants about the new policy and the graduated punishment system.
Roughly 600 housing authorities across the country have already banned smoking ahead of the July 30 deadline, Sully said. And the NYCHA smoking ban reflects a general trend in housing in New York City. For example, many market-rate buildings have prohibited smoking, a rule that many apartment-seekers consider important, Sully said.
“What we’ve noticed in our work is that a lot of market rate buildings are going smoke free and smoke-free buildings are being used as an amenity,” Sully said, adding that North Shore Towers in Glen Oaks, one of the city’s largest co-op complexes, recently decided to ban smoking. The campaign will next encourage LeFrak City in Corona to ban smoking, she said.
Though individuals in market rate apartments often have the option to move when they are exposed to secondhand smoke, low-income tenants in public housing rarely have that option. They simply cannot afford to move.
The policy has encountered a mixed response from residents and tenant organizations who worry that it could result in eviction for violators.
Lawmakers also say the policy does not come with adequate smoking cessation resources, a gap that NYC Smoke-Free has attempted to fill.
Council Members Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) and Donovan Richards (D-Queens) co-sponsored a bill that would force NYCHA to create an anti-smoking outreach plan by Sept. 2018 and which would include “educational materials” and public education events.
Richards first proposed banning smoking in NYCHA buildings in 2015.
“There is no safe amount of secondhand smoke,” Richards said at the time. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect people’s health, especially if we’re putting taxpayer dollars into buildings.”
According to the Smoke-Free NYCHA Fact Sheet created by the city, NYCHA will establish a “graduated enforcement approach to addressing violations,” as recommended by HUD. “Graduated enforcement means NYCHA will respond to violations with escalated warnings and specific, progressive enforcement remedies while also connecting residents to resources,” the document continues.
In November 2017, a spokesperson for NYCHA told Gotham Gazette that penalties would escalate until “commencement of termination of tenancy proceedings.”
“I think it’s a horrible policy,” said Charlene Nimmons, resident of Wyckoff Gardens and president of the Wyckoff Gardens Resident Association from 2003 to 2015, told Gotham Gazette. “There’s this privileged rule and law being forced down upon public housing residents.”
Others welcome the new rule, however.
“Some people have a problem with the NYCHA smoking ban, I for one embrace it,” Jamaica resident Ursula Calhoun wrote on Facebook. “As a non-smoker, I can’t open my windows without having cigarette smoke coming through or coming through my pipes. Sick of it doesn’t even cover how I feel.”
Sully said she understands the pushback from some tenants and said similar challenges occurred when the city banned smoking inside restaurants and bars and parks.
“When it comes to public health, you’re not going to be able to please every person,” Sully said. “This is really about health equity and making positive impacts on families and neighborhoods.”