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story.lead_photo.caption Parris Towers, a complex for the elderly at 1800 Broadway in Little Rock, is one of 13 public housing properties run by the Metropolitan Housing Alliance. Under a proposed federal rule, all public housing buildings would have to ban smoking. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

The federal government wants to ban smoking in and near public housing units nationwide within the next two years.

A proposed ban announced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday would have to be implemented by all the nation's public housing authorities -- including the 105 in Arkansas that manage about 14,200 units.

There's a two-month comment period on the proposal before HUD would put in place the rule, which requires the more than 3,100 housing agencies in the U.S. to adopt the no-smoking policy within 18 months of the rule taking effect.

Three public housing authorities in Arkansas already have some form of no-smoking policy. HUD began encouraging housing authorities to adopt such rules voluntarily in 2009.

That year, the Little Rock agency now known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance and the Polk County Housing Authority in Mena voted for smoking regulations that took effect Jan. 1, 2010.

And in July the Paragould Housing Authority implemented a smoke-free policy for its 187 public housing and 31 multifamily elderly housing units after a six-month comment period.

The transition in Paragould has been met with little resistance, agency Assistant Executive Director Polly Fisk said Thursday. Open communication with residents and the fact that it's a smaller housing authority likely contributed to the ease, she said, noting that larger housing agencies might have more difficulty making the transition.

In Little Rock, smoking is prohibited in three of the 13 public housing properties -- representing 596 units designated for the elderly and families. That's 66 percent of the agency's 902 public housing units. The alliance's executive director didn't return a phone call or emails seeking comment on the HUD proposal Thursday.

The Polk County Housing Authority did away with smoking in all six of its properties, totaling 182 units.

The change there seems to have improved the agency's occupancy rate over the past five years and has decreased maintenance costs, Executive Director Penny Terrell said Thursday.

"I have some pictures we took before we started this of an apartment where a guy had been in there for like four years, and it looked like there had been a fire -- it was so orange, the walls and things. We are just not seeing that anymore," Terrell said.

"And also, a lot of people nowadays are sensitive to all kinds of things, including smoke, and we've had better luck keeping people because they don't have to fight that smoke from their neighbor now," she said.

Residents in units run by the Mena housing authority -- including the smokers -- welcomed the policy change, Terrell said. The policy there included a clause that gave smokers a period of time during which they could quit smoking if they wished to stay in public housing.

"We really never have had to evict someone over that, but we have had to visit with some people on it," she said. "Here, it's worked for us. It's amazed me really."

The proposed HUD rule would prohibit lit tobacco products in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of public housing and administrative office buildings.

Those regulations differ from smoke-free policies already in place at some public housing authorities.

In Paragould, for example, the public housing units are in single-floor buildings that have doors exiting to outside porches. Currently, tenants are allowed to smoke on their porches. Under the HUD rule, they couldn't do that.

Whether or not the federal rule comes to pass, Paragould expects its own smoke-free policy to save money for the city's housing agency, Fisk said.

"When our budgets are getting cut all the time, we have to figure out ways to keep our budget line where we can, and that is one of the most costly things, turning around a unit when someone has been smoking in it," she said.

HUD officials also said the federal proposal would have health and financial benefits.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimated the nationwide smoke-free policy would save $153 million yearly -- $94 million in health care costs, $43 million in reduced costs for painting and cleaning smoke-damaged units, and $16 million in averted fire losses.

HUD said smoking is estimated to cause more than 100,000 fires every year and is the leading cause of fire-related deaths in multifamily buildings. Those statistics include all fires and buildings, not just public housing.

In addition, the U.S. surgeon general's office has concluded there is no acceptable, risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to HUD's proposal.

"The argument about secondhand smoke is over," Julian Castro, the federal housing secretary, told The New York Times on Wednesday. "It's harmful, and we believe it's important that we have an environment that's healthy in public housing."

Currently, about 600 housing authorities in the U.S. -- representing 228,000 public housing units -- are smoke free. The proposed rule would affect the more than 940,000 units in the nation where smoking is still allowed.

Smoking bans have gained momentum in the past decade. Many cities, including Little Rock and several others in Arkansas, ban smoking in public parks or other areas. Many privately run apartment complexes and hotels also have smoking bans.

Since more public housing authorities have adopted smoke-free policies in recent years, some tenants have argued that the restrictions violate their rights and liberty to do what they want in their homes.

Those arguments have yet to lead to any court order striking down the bans. Smokers aren't a protected class, and civil liberties and legal aid groups have said it's not common for them to take up such cases.

The Fayetteville Housing Authority had a meeting with tenants Thursday to discuss the possibility of making 248 public housing units smoke free. The meeting was planned before the proposed HUD rule was released.

Executive Director Deniece C̶B̶* Smiley said Thursday that she's heard positive and negative reactions to the proposal.

"We do have a lot of residents who complain about having to be exposed to secondhand smoke. They can't sit on their balcony because other people above or below them are smoking. It comes down to them, seeps into their units," Smiley said. "But we've also had tenants object because they feel like we're taking their rights away."

Smiley emphasized that before any policy is adopted in Fayetteville, a draft would have to be written, a 60-day comment period for tenants would take place and more time would be required to revise the agency's administrative plan and incorporate the language into leases.

"It wouldn't be an immediate thing," she said.

The majority of smoking bans at U.S. housing authorities have been implemented in the past four years. In 2005, only 32 housing authorities in the nation had the bans. By 2011, that rose to 285. Now there are more than 600.

Shauna Sorrells, director of public housing programs for HUD, told The New York Times in 2011 that one reason HUD hadn't yet required a nationwide ban was that the mandate could result in families being evicted because one member smoked. Evictions would increase homelessness, she said at the time.

Public reports on previously implemented smoking bans indicate that evictions due to smoking violations are rare. Violations are typically treated as a nuisance, and warnings are given.

In some larger public housing authorities in the U.S., the proposed smoking ban has led to the fear of an increased burden on administrators already struggling to enforce policies and to maintain their properties.

"For us, the major issue is our ability to enforce something like this," said Shola Olatoye, the chairman and chief executive officer of the New York City Housing Authority, the nation's largest public housing agency, which has about 178,000 housing units.

But Castro said HUD has a responsibility to protect public housing tenants, especially the elderly and children, from "the harmful effects of secondhand smoke."

Cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year and is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Electronic cigarettes are not included in the proposed rule, but federal officials are seeking input about whether to ban them as well. The CDC targeted e-cigarettes in its anti-smoking ads for the first time in March. Paragould's ban already includes e-cigarettes.

Information for this article was contributed by Jerry Markon of The Washington Post and by Mireya Navarro of The New York Times.

Metro on 11/13/2015

*CORRECTION: Deniece Smiley is the executive director of the Fayetteville Housing Authority. Because of an editing error, her name appeared incorrectly in this article.

Print Headline: 3 state agencies ahead of any smoking ban

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