Northampton’s public housing goes smoke-free

  • The Cahill Apartments in Northampton. gazette file photo

  • A man walks his bicycle through the Hampshire Heights neighborhood last year. The public housing complex in Northampton is one of 13 that is now under no-smoking policy. gazette file photo

  • From left, Karissa Skawski, Robert Skawski and Nicole Lancour discuss the public housing smoking ban in Florence Heights in Northampton. REBECCA MULLEN

For the Gazette
Published: 6/3/2017 12:49:10 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Sitting outside of her Hampshire Heights condo Thursday afternoon, Yarlyne Figeroa expressed a resigned tone about a new smoke-free policy in the city’s public housing.

“A lot of us are pissed off but at the end of the day, what are we going to do?” Figeroa said.

On June 1, the Northampton Housing Authority began implementing a federally-mandated smoking ban in all of its public housing properties. The new rule bans smoking inside of and within 25 feet of all NHA properties.

Six of the 13 properties managed by the NHA were already smoke-free. The remaining seven — Millbank, Hampshire Heights, Walter Salvo House, Florence Heights, MacDonald House, Cahill and Forsander apartments — previously allowed residents to smoke in their rooms or on porches.

The NHA oversees more than 600 federally subsidized housing units. It also administers a Section 8 housing voucher program for more than 1,200 residents and works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to administer HUD-VASH, or housing vouchers, for homeless veterans.

The no-smoking rule from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development went into effect Feb. 3, though local public housing authorities had 18 months to comply. The HUD ruling banned the use of “items that involve the ignition and burning of tobacco leaves” with no mention of legal marijuana or e-cigarettes.

NHA decision

But, at a Feb. 27 NHA meeting, the board decided to go further than HUD mandates, voting unanimously to ban “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, electronic nicotine delivery system or vaporized nicotine product (electronic cigarette)” both inside its housing units and within 25 feet of them.

The ban also forbids using a pipe, hookah or any form of lighted object or device that contains tobacco and/or marijuana, including but not limited to medical marijuana.

Residents received a non-smoking addendum for their lease that outlined the enforcement policy. Three violations is now grounds for lease termination. For residents who moved in after March 1 of this year, the ban was already in place as part of their lease.

“The majority of the residents are taking it as a positive thing,” said NHA Executive Director Cara Clifford of the ban.

She estimated that only about 10 percent of the residents were smokers and felt that the new policy would be met with little resistance.

Dan Crawford, a longtime smoker who lives at Walter Salvo House on Conz Street, said the ban is fine with him.

“Don’t bother me. I like taking a walk anyway,” he said.

Crawford began smoking over a pack a day when his wife and sister died earlier this year. Now, he said the ban is, “more of an incentive for me to quit.”

Crawford disagreed with Clifford’s 10 percent figure and guessed that the number of smokers at Salvo was closer to 50 percent, or “not quite half.”

Other Salvo residents were smoking around the building entrance near the PVTA bus stop this week. Benches and chairs were set up at nearly every door with large black ashtrays nearby. Most residents said that the 25 feet rule would not impact their smoking habits as they preferred to smoke outside the building anyway.

But in the condo-style residences of Florence Heights and Hampshire Heights, many residents who smoke do so from their front stoop or back porch. These NHA properties are reserved for families with children and each residence has a private outdoor area.

Some residents interviewed on June 1, the day the ban took effect, said they didn’t think it would be robustly enforced, especially in the more remote apartment complexes such as Florence Heights.

Florence Heights resident Robert Skawski felt that there was a lack of clarity around where smoking would be allowed on the property.

“For starters, they could put in designated smoking areas,” he said.

The lease addendum signed by residents said that “smoking may be permitted in a specific outside area on a property by property basis.” Some residents said this has yet to be implemented uniformly and many are confused about where they can legally smoke.

“I can only walk 100 feet before my legs give out,” Skawski said. He uses marijuana to treat chronic pain associated with his multiple sclerosis. “To tell people they can’t use their medicine is ridiculous,” he said.

Figeroa, who lives at Hampshire Heights, is also concerned about the ban’s implementation.

“How are you going to violate us if you haven’t even given us a place to smoke?” asked Figeroa, referencing proposed smoking shelters to be built on each of the NHA’s properties. “Are you supposed to get your kids dressed and go out and smoke a cigarette in the rain?”

The ban comes after a wave of smoking restrictions implemented by Northampton in June 2014 that heavily restricted smoking (including the use of e-cigarettes) in most public places and regulates the sale of e-cigarettes, cigars and blunt wraps.

Merridith O’Leary, the city’s director of public health, said restrictions may function as a way of phasing out the use of tobacco in the city. “I would hope that’s the case and I would want that to be the case,” she said.

In addition to the ban, the city offers several tobacco cessation programs. This spring the Northampton Senior Center offered a six-week “How to Quit Smoking” workshop for people over 55.

In January, Cooley Dickinson Hospital awarded a $2,500 grant to the city’s health department to “support staff training to become a tobacco treatment specialist.”

None of the public housing residents interviewed had heard of these programs but several said they would have attended had they known.

Public housing in nearby Springfield has been smoke-free since 2013. William Abrashkin, head of Springfield housing authority, decided to take a more gradual approach compared to the NHA.

The policy was slowly rolled out over the course of three years after a resident-wide survey indicated that a majority wanted a completely smoke-free living area.

“The whole thing has worked,” Abrashkin said.

Although he recognizes that the policy could come off as discriminatory against poor people and people of color — groups that have high tobacco use — he notes that public housing should be environmentally safe for all who need it. “Just because you’re poor you shouldn’t have to be subjected to a carcinogen,” he said.

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