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HUD Proposes Nationwide Smoking Ban In Public Housing


People who live in public housing around the country would no longer be allowed to smoke in their homes under a new proposal by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The government says the move would save more than $150 million a year mostly in health care costs. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, it's not clear how the rule would be enforced.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Benjamin Scott lives in Sibley Plaza, a public housing project in Washington, D.C., and he's a smoker. But Scott thinks that a ban on smoking, even inside his own apartment, is a good idea, at least for him.

BENJAMIN SCOTT: You know, I'm working on trying to stop smoking cigarettes, so I think it's all good for me because what it does - it just keeps a safer and healthier environment.

FESSLER: And Scott, who's 56, thinks it could be an incentive for others like him who are also trying to quit. But he does wonder how those who do want to smoke can be stopped, and indeed, some residents who didn't want to talk on tape said what they do inside their own apartments is their business. Scott says some people already violate the rules by smoking marijuana and are never caught.

SCOTT: I'm just saying it's an uphill battle. Let me say that. It's an uphill battle. It's a challenge.

FESSLER: But HUD secretary Julian Castro says it's a challenge worth taking, especially for the more than 1 million families who now live in public housing

JULIAN CASTRO: Should you relegate them to housing where there's a whole bunch of secondhand smoke that is unhealthy, that is harming their children, or should you provide them with an environment that is healthier than that?

FESSLER: Castro says the overwhelming majority of public housing residents are those who are sensitive to secondhand smoke - children, especially those with asthma, and the elderly. Under HUD's plan, smoking would be banned in all living units, indoor common areas and certain outdoor spaces. Castro notes that about 20 percent of public housing systems have already imposed such limits voluntarily.

CASTRO: And the fact is that a lot of residents out there living in public housing welcome this change.

FESSLER: But like Benjamin Scott, Adrianne Todman, who runs the DC Housing Authority, has questions about how a smoking ban will be enforced.

ADRIANNE TODMAN: I know that neither HUD nor this housing authority's interested in setting residents up to fail. So I'm just hoping that the process that is contemplated definitely puts residents first and making sure that we want them to not just stay healthy, but we want them to remain housed as well.

FESSLER: She says the current penalty for those who don't follow the rules is often eviction, something she wouldn't want to see in this case, especially, she says, because it's so difficult for anyone rich or poor to quit smoking. Castro agrees that eviction should be the last resort. He says the details will be worked out after a 60-day comment period.

Sunia Zaterman runs the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. She says housing authorities that already have such bans think the best way to make them work is to get the residents onboard.

SUNIA ZATERMAN: Community education and community input and participation aspect of this is very important and critical to getting community buy-in.

FESSLER: Her bigger concern is that housing authorities are already strapped for cash, and this is just another thing to add to a very lengthy to-do list. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.