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Residents of public housing in St. Louis must smoke outside to stay put

Lois Jackson, who lives in the Villa Lago housing complex in Spanish Lake, sits outside her apartment. Public housing residents have recently been banned from smoking inside their homes.
Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Lois Jackson, who lives in the Villa Lago housing complex in Spanish Lake, sits outside her apartment. Public-housing residents have recently been banned from smoking inside their homes.

James Parker has been smoking for more than six decades. But to keep his habit, he's had to make changes. Every time he smokes, he has to go outside his home in the Badenfest apartment complex on North Broadway in St. Louis.

Parker is one of the hundreds of smokers in St. Louis who can no longer light up in their homes. Residents and housing agencies are adjusting to a new rule from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development which bars residents from smoking within 25 feet of their apartments. Residents and housing advocates have criticized the policy and are worried it will result in more evictions.

“You try to do right, but you feel like your rights are being taken away from you as a smoker, as a tenant,” said Parker, 75.

All housing organizations receiving federal funds must comply with the ban. The new rule went into effect in July, but some agencies such as the Housing Authority of St. Louis County started banning smoking earlier.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Parker, pointing to a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. “In your apartment, that’s violating your personal privacy.”

In announcing the new rule, HUD officials saidit would save money by significantly reducing the costs of cleaning nicotine out of walls and carpets. The rule also is designed to protect residents against secondhand smoke, particularly in multi-family units, Housing Authority of St. Louis County Executive Director Susan Rollins said.

Even if tenants don’t smoke in their individual units, tobacco drifts through ductwork and air vents.

“I think very often our residents lose track of the fact that we are landlords, and we have certain responsibilities as landlords, just as they are tenants, and they have certain responsibilities as tenants as well,” Rollins said.

Public-housing complexes in St. Louis and St. Louis County have about 2,700 adult residents between them. Officials say nearly one fourth of the adults in the region’s public-housing units smoke.

Villa Lago resident Lois Jackson points to the bus stop where one of her neighbors must walk to smoke. A new rule requires public-housing residents to smoke 25 feet away from their homes.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Villa Lago resident Lois Jackson points to the bus stop where one of her neighbors must walk to smoke. A new rule requires public-housing residents to smoke 25 feet away from their homes. Jackson says her neighbor, who has dementia, can’t always make the trip safely.

Most rentals on the market already prohibit tenants from lighting up inside, Rollins said.

“I think you see a trend in the rental market that is moving towards no smoking,” she said.

Advocates for people with disabilities and the homeless have decried the new policy. They argue it could lead to smokers losing their homes. Homelessness and housing are also public-health issues, representatives from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilitiesin a letter it submitted to HUD.

“The smoking ban, if implemented as proposed, will lead to countless evictions of public-housing residents — especially those who have disabilities,” they wrote.

Low-income people are more likely to smoke than others, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also are exposed to secondhand smoke at higher rates and find it harder to quit, CDC officials say.

In St. Louis, the Housing Authority intends to enforce HUD's requirements. But officials want residents to know they are not trying to evict anyone, Director Cheryl Lovell said.

If given a choice, she would have implemented the rule gradually.

“What we probably would have done, had it not been directed, is taken specific developments — or specific buildings — and made them smoke-free … and maybe take groups of buildings in a development, and make them smoke-free,” Lovell said. “It seems to me that would have been an approach that would accommodate everybody.”

Still, Lovell said, the city is giving residents who smoke more leeway than those who commit other housing violations, given how difficult it is to quit.

“We’re trying to make sure people have the opportunity to get the assistance they need, to understand the policy and make sure they understand where they can and cannot smoke,” Lovell said.

Housing authorities say they will be relying on complaints and maintenance reports to figure out if someone is still smoking. If someone violates the rule, they’ll have multiple chances to change their behavior before they’re evicted. Officials at both agencies say they aren’t aware of anyone violating the policy yet and haven’t needed to threaten eviction.

But Lovell said tenants — even the elderly or those with disabilities — might lose their place if they keep breaking the rule.

HUD didn’t provide local housing authorities any funds to enforce the policy. But the American Lung Association has been training housing employees to lead anti-smoking classes. Lovell says she hasn’t seen much interest in those. Nine people at two county public-housing projects have signed up for classes.

Five people showed up to an initial meeting of a smoking-cessation support group at the Villa Lago housing development in Spanish Lake. County housing authority Resident Services Coordinator Pat Hamilton volunteered to lead the class.

A former smoker, Hamilton understands how hard it is to quit. She knows doing so is an even bigger struggle for those in public housing.

Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Housing Authority of St. Louis County Resident Services Coordinator Pat Hamilton leads a smoking-cessation class at the Villa Lago public-housing complex in Spanish Lake. Hamilton, a former smoker, volunteered to lead the class after a new HUD rule banned smoking in public-housing units.

“There’s a lot of health issues, family issues; there’s a combination of things they’re dealing with,” Hamilton said.

The first smoking-cessation meeting at Villa Lago was scheduled to be an opportunity for residents to talk through the obstacles that would prevent them from quitting inside a group setting. But residents used it as an opportunity to vent about the ban.

“You’re forcing us to quit!” one woman said. “Some of the people here have been smoking for years.”

Many residents were concerned about older or disabled tenants who might not be able to leave their buildings to smoke because of mobility issues.

“You're in your own home, you can barely walk get out the door, and they tell you gotta go outside and stand 25 feet away your door to smoke your cigarette,” said Villa Lago resident Lois Jackson, who has been smoking for four decades.

She calls trying to quit her “biggest fight.”

“It’s always something traumatic that once you stop you go back to it: something that stresses you out, or you have some sort of traumatic experience,” she said.

Jackson said she’s trying to quit, anyway, regardless of the policy. But she still thinks it’s unfair.

“You know, we paying you our money to stay here, I don’t care how big or little it is,” she said. If you want to implement new rules, the people who are already there, they need a get-out-of-jail-free card, because they were doing this before you implemented this rule.”

But Hamilton told the residents that the housing authority has no choice.

“We’re not forcing you to quit,” Hamilton told the residents. “HUD says you have to stand 25 feet away.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.