SAHA to ban smoking in public housing

To the list of places where smokers no longer will be able to light up — government buildings, parks, restaurants and bars — public housing residents in San Antonio soon will add one more: their own homes.

The San Antonio Housing Authority plans to impose a new policy in January that will prohibit residents from smoking indoors or away from designated outdoor spots at all 70 of its public sites.

Norma Garcia smokes on the front porch of his Wheatley Courts apartment.

Norma Garcia smokes on the front porch of his Wheatley Courts apartment.

The ban, which will affect about 15,800 residents, aims to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and follows a growing nationwide trend to eliminate smoking at public housing authorities.

Since 2009, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a directive that “strongly” encouraged housing authorities to adopt nonsmoking policies, the number of agencies that have banned the practice has more than doubled to an estimated 250, according to the Smoke Free Environments Law Project, a Michigan nonprofit that tracks the number.

San Antonio will become the biggest housing authority in Texas and one of the largest in the country to adopt a smoking ban, joining other major agencies in Boston, Detroit, Portland and Seattle.

“It’s our responsibility to provide a living environment that’s healthy, safe and comfortable and, frankly, your neighbor’s smoke can often impair that,” said Melanie Villalobos, a spokeswoman for SAHA.

The no-smoking rule will debut here in August or September at the newly renovated Lewis Chatham Apartments, a single, four-story building for the elderly on the South Side.

SAHA’s other properties are expected to go smoke-free in January, but the details of how the new policy will work at each site, including the locations of designated smoking areas, remain undetermined.

Residents will be prohibited from smoking within about 20 feet of exterior doorways, and those who repeatedly violate the rule could face eviction.

The housing authority began putting out the word about the new policy earlier this year, opening the discussion at resident meetings and surveying tenants.

Later this month, the housing authority plans to launch an educational campaign about the hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke. Residents who want to quit the habit also can get free smoking-cessation aids such as patches and lozenges, provided through the agency’s partnership with the American Cancer Society.

The housing authority put off a planned start date in July after studying how other agencies had dealt with the issue. Among the most important lessons was that residents were more agreeable to the change if they had time to prepare and received health information.

“The education campaign is the most important part,” said Lori Mendez, the housing director for the elderly and disabled who has spearheaded the effort. “Residents need to understand the expectations.”

Kids exposed to smoke

Many residents have yet to hear about the change, but so far the new policy has inspired a mix of strong support, ambivalence and anger.

A survey sent to all 6,029 households in January shows that a large majority of tenants support the no-smoking policy. Of the 200 residents who responded, 81 percent said they liked the idea, while 17 percent opposed it, and 2 percent said they had no opinion.

In some cases, smokers decried what they view as a violation of their rights.

“This is my house even though I’m receiving help from SAHA, and I should be able to smoke in my own home if I want to,” one resident wrote.

Another resident who smokes on the balcony suggested forcing residents to go outside would put them at risk.

“It’s dangerous enough at daytime. Understand that you will be putting people’s lives in danger,” the tenant wrote.

But many cheered the idea, and some smokers even welcomed the change as an inducement to help them quit.

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