The King County Housing Authority will extinguish smoking in all its public housing units starting Dec. 1.
“Everyone benefits from a smoke-free living environment. The smoke-free policy is aimed at protecting nonsmokers – especially children, the frail elderly, and residents who suffer from asthma − from breathing in secondhand smoke,” said Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority. “Not only is this an important health measure, it will enhance the safety of our communities from the perspective of fire risk. It also saves the Housing Authority – and therefore taxpayers − money spent to rehab apartment units when a smoker moves.”
The ban will apply to the agency’s 3,366 public housing units and common areas throughout the county. It builds upon a pilot program started in 2008 which banned smoking at three properties with 222 units. The second phase followed in 2011, encompassing an additional 14 properties and 884 units. With this final phase, some 8,434 individuals, including 2,091 seniors and 2, 610 children, will be protected.
According to the World Health Organization, secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, more than 50 of which are known carcinogens. Secondhand smoke and its hazardous chemicals remain in carpets, on floors and walls, etc. and continue to expose residents and KCHA employees to harmful health effects. The only way to fully protect individuals from exposure to secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking in indoor spaces. Multifamily housing is the leading cause of secondhand smoke exposure.
“Tobacco use is a leading cause of preventable death, and we applaud the Housing Authority for taking this action to reduce secondhand smoke exposure in vulnerable populations, including children and infants,” said Dr. Jim Krieger, chief of chronic disease & injury Prevention at Public Health Seattle – King County. “Smoke travels through vents, under doors, and through electrical outlets. Walls and doors don’t stop the airborne toxins in tobacco smoke.”
The costs of secondhand smoke are not limited to concerns about disease. Exposure also imposes economic costs on individuals, the Housing Authority and society as a whole. These include primarily direct and indirect medical costs as well as productivity losses. In addition, apartment homes where smoking is permitted incur higher renovation and cleaning costs on turnover, increased risk of fire, and may experience higher insurance premiums.
KCHA’s smoke-free initiative has its roots in a 2009 recommendation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that urged housing authorities nationwide to implement no-smoking policies in their public housing units.
“We have encouraged our partners to use their discretion to take steps like this to promote healthy environments,” said Mary McBride, HUD’s Northwest Regional Administrator. “The King County Housing Authority’s policy not only will promote the health of its residents and staff, but also will help promote the affordability of public housing by reducing apartment cleanup and repair costs and reducing the risk of fires.”
A majority of residents support the move to smoke-free housing. Results of a survey conducted in November 2011 indicated that 88 percent of public housing residents wanted to live in smoke-free housing. KCHA’s two Resident Advisory Committees also endorsed the move to go smoke-free. KCHA estimates that about 17 percent of households in public housing have a family member who smokes.
Lawrence Kiongo lives in Seola Gardens in White Center with his wife and four children. He strongly supports KCHA’s move to filter out smoking in public housing apartments and common areas.
“Why should the nonsmoking residents of public housing have to endure the health risks of secondhand smoke?” Kiongo said. “Smoking is a waste of money, makes the grounds and environment dirty, and is a health hazard to me and my family. It’s not good for children to see people smoking – it might get them into the habit. I am very happy that KCHA has made this policy.”
The demand for no-smoking apartments in public housing mirrors the national trend in private sector apartment communities. KCHA believes that low-income renters should have the same access to a smoke-free living environment that more affluent renters do.
Significantly, the policy does not prohibit individuals who smoke from living in KCHA managed properties. It does, however, forbid anyone from smoking inside an apartment or common area such as a community room, lobby, community park, garden area or playground. At mid-rise complexes, smokers must be outside and at least 25 feet from building entrances. At garden-style family communities, residents are free to smoke on their patio and/or unit entrance area. Residents are encouraged to refrain from smoking anywhere children are present. Every KCHA resident must sign an addendum to his lease agreeing to comply.
Smoking cessation resources will be available to smokers who express an interest in wanting help to quit.
KCHA administers a range of quality affordable rental and homeownership programs in the Puget Sound region. The Authority serves more than 18,000 families and elderly and disabled households on a daily basis.