Going Smoke-Free in Government-Subsidized Housing
Recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding the benefits of going smoke-free in government-subsidized housing raises points to ponder for residents and landlords.
In this study done by the CDC, going smoke-free in all government-subsidized housing would save an estimated $497 million per year in housing costs and related health care expenses. Of the nearly $500 million, public housing would save an estimated $153 million annually.
That’s significant savings and more ammunition for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) ongoing efforts to promote smoke-free living. In 2009, HUD began encouraging adoption of smoke-free policies for public housing, which provides homes in multi-unit structures to nearly seven million in the U.S.
At a recent multifamily housing conference, one executive worried a shift to no smoking in government-subsidized housing could limit housing choices for smokers, who do not have as many options as conventional renters. He worried whether enforcement would discriminate against those who cannot afford other housing choices.
CNN reported that “although the exact numbers of smokers in housing projects are unknown, about 30 percent of Americans living below the poverty line smoke tobacco, more than 1.5 times the rate of those who live above it.”
Smoke-free nothing new to public housing sector
Smoke-free housing began making headlines in the conventional housing sector a couple of years ago, but it’s nothing new to public housing. The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC) reports that about 240 public housing authorities and commissions across the U.S. have already adopted smoke-free policies for low-income multi-unit housing.
SmokeFreeHousingNY, which advocates smoke-free multi-unit housing in New York, touts the benefits of no smoking for landlords and tenants.
In a 2010 survey of property owners in six upstate New York counties, 97 percent of landlords who have a no-smoking policy said they were satisfied with their decision to restrict smoking. They said the policies attract new tenants, minimize maintenance costs, reduce fire risks and decrease the potential for legal liability.
The Fair Housing Council of New York reminds that smoke-free policies are legal and protective, saying neither smokers nor the act of smoking is included as a protected class under federal, state or local fair housing laws.
The toll of smoking on a unit can be high
In an interview, David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association (TAA), noted that those who qualify and depend on public housing generally have fewer options than others, and going smoke-free is something landlords would need to think over.
“It’s probably just like every other decision that an owner makes when they’ve got a property,” he said. “If market demand is there, they’re going to do it. If market demand is not there or they feel like it’s not worth going through the effort to have it, they’re not going to do it.”
A smoke-free apartment could mean lower turnover costs for property managers and a reduced risk of property damage related to fires. HUD’s Action Guide for Establishing Smoke-Free Public Housing and Multifamily Properties says that turnover costs can range from an additional $1,810-$3,515 to repair flooring, appliances, and bathrooms. Moderate to excessive smoking damages most surfaces and fixtures in the home, and the U.S. Fire Administration claims that smoking-related fires result in $326 million in property damage every year.
About seven years ago, TAA began providing information and advice to members who expressed interest in going smoke-free.
Mintz said. “At same time it’s got to be the owner’s decision whether or not they want to make their property smoke free. It’s one of those decisions where they are going to have to take all of those factors into account when they make that determination.”
No smoking rules can help preserve government housing
Despite an improving economy, some fear the future of affordable housing is in peril, at a time when demand is high. The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities estimates that each year the U.S. loses 10,000-15,000 units from its public housing stock because of underfunding.
In 2010, a study by Abt Associates noted that there is a $26 billion backlog – or $23,365 per unit – of the existing public housing capital needs. The backlog includes costs for necessary improvements like removing lead paint, making units A.D.A. compliant and improving energy and water efficiencies.
HUD’s appropriation of $1.9 billion in 2013 was the lowest in nearly 25 years. Some believe that lack of funding may destroy public housing as we know it.
Gustavo Sapiurka, a senior vice president at Carrollton, Texas-based RealPage who works with public housing and government subsidized properties, said reducing turnover costs by eliminating smoking makes a case to preserve the lifeblood of affordable housing.
If owners/agents choose to eliminate the risk for hefty turnover costs, the preservation of the existing affordable housing inventory stands to benefit.
“By reducing operational costs, especially at a time when there is a huge emphasis on reducing budgets, it will certainly help be effective in preserving existing affordable housing, while also keeping it attractive to existing owners and operators,” Sapiurka said.
And everyone could be breathing easier.
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