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After Jan. 1, smoking banned in Hillsborough public housing; already the rule in Pinellas

TAMPA — Byron Jenkins likes to start his day with a cigarette.

The demolition worker who lives in Robles Park Village has smoked for more than 30 years and gets through a pack and a half of Newport each day.

But beginning Jan. 1, the 47-year-old will be banned from lighting up in his home and even on his porch because of a new federal rule to make public housing across the United States smoke-free.

"I hate it. You can't sit in your house and smoke; you can't sit on your porch and smoke," he said. "I don't think that's right."

The ban on lit tobacco products was given final approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week. It prohibits smoking in public housing units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing. The ban will apply to 900,000 housing units nationwide.

Smoking is already banned by housing authorities in St. Petersburg and unincorporated Pinellas County. The Tampa Housing Authority plans to start enforcing its ban at the start of next year. Residents in its 1,550 public housing units will be required to sign a lease amendment requiring adherence.

Free smoking cessation classes and nicotine patches will be made available to help residents through the transition, said Michael Butler, director of public housing and asset management at the Housing Authority.

Residents who still want to smoke will be expected to walk to the nearest public road.

The Housing Authority will not conduct inspections to find evidence of smoking but maintenance staff will be told to report residents they suspect are violating the rule.

"We're not going to be the Gestapo about it," Butler said.

Still, residents who continually thumb their noses at the rule could be evicted through a three-strike rule, he warned. A first offense will result in a warning from the property manager. Residents caught a second time would be required to take a cessation class.

A third offense would be considered a violation of the lease.

HUD officials say the ban will protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke, including seniors and about 760,000 children who live in public housing.

And it will save public housing agencies $16 million every year in smoking-related fire losses, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful secondhand cigarette smoke," HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a statement.

It's not known if President-elect Donald Trump's administration would continue the ban. Reports state that Trump has asked neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson to lead the department.

Groups that advocate on behalf of public housing residents had conflicting feelings about the ban.

It will bring health benefits, said Ed Gramlich, a housing policy analyst with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. But he is concerned that determined smokers will be forced to go onto public roads to satisfy their habit.

"A lot of people in public housing are disabled, and if they have to go outside to smoke, there may be physical challenges with that," Gramlich said.

Another worry is that the policy will result in more evictions, he said. The HUD rule leaves it up to housing authorities to set their own policies on how to enforce the ban.

That concern is shared by the National Housing Law Project, a San Francisco nonprofit that fights for the rights of public housing tenants.

"We urge HUD to work with housing authorities to implement no-smoking policies that reduce exposure to secondhand smoke while avoiding an increase in homelessness and housing instability among our nation's poorest families," said staff attorney Deborah Thrope.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority banned smoking in the roughly 200 homes it owns in 2013, enforcing the ban as a condition of a lease.

The Pinellas County Housing Authority phased in a ban at its two complexes over the past few months. The move is critical to protecting residents from secondhand smoke, said Susan Jenkins, tobacco policy coordinator for the Department of Health in Pinellas County.

"Children tend to be in their apartment, and someone smokes next door and the smoke drifts," she said "They can be outside playing and they breathe in smoke."

Quitting will be very tough for some smokers, Jenkins said. Some will need up to 10 cessation classes to kick the habit.

"It's not easy, but this is to benefit everybody," she said.

Cigarette butts are easy to find in the grass common areas and walkways at Robles Park.

It's a community where many homes have chairs on the front porch, which is often a favorite spot to smoke.

Robles Park resident Markese Donaldson, 26, said living in public housing is stressful, and he worries that residents will turn toward other substances like marijuana and synthetic drugs.

He also questioned whether it's fair that the government is placing restrictions on just one group of people.

"Everybody who is in public housing needs help. We didn't come here because it's a nice place to live," he said. "You can't treat this place like it's a prison."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

After Jan. 1, smoking banned in Hillsborough public housing; already the rule in Pinellas 12/03/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2016 9:59pm]
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