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Combating Smoking in Houston’s Public Housing Communities

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By Aboubacar N’Diaye
Art by Blake Jones

At a press conference last week, a number of Houston’s elected and 
appointed public officials gathered to announce a new housing rule which
 would forbid smoking inside public housing units, common areas and 
within 25 feet of any public housing entryway. In their remarks Mayor 
Parker, along with Houston Housing Authority CEO Tony Gunsolley and HHA 
Board Vice-Chair Assata Richards, emphasized the many health and 
financial benefits that could result from this ban. “There’s
 a growing body of evidence that firsthand, secondhand and thirdhand 
smoke are all bad,” Gunsolley was quoted as saying to the Chronicle. 
”We’re going to be bringing in smoking cessation programs and a higher 
level of awareness of just how dangerous secondhand smoke is.”

 

But in the celebratory mood, some crucial details regarding the 
enforcement of the new ordinance were ignored. Officials from the HHA 
did state that if tenants continue smoking in or around 
their dwellings, they may be evicted from that unit. Details on the process
 for this are foggy (requests for clarification have gone unanswered), 
but as reported in the Chronicle and in the HHA press release, a tenant 
in repeated violation of the ban may be evicted from the home he or she 
is paying for. The people who advocate for the smoking ban see this as a
 way to make sure that the proposal has teeth and to ensure compliance in a
 way that a fine could not.

 

And yet, when considering the proposal, it’s hard not to see another 
instance of a worrying trend on public poverty policy. Around the 
country, city and state governments have increasingly attached 
behavioral strings to public assistance. The Houston smoking ban itself 
follows similar regulation in Detroit, Seattle and Boston. Public funds
 recipients are now required in some states to submit to drug tests, 
home inspections, and show regular proof of either job searching or 
employment. In New York, a proposal to fingerprint public housing 
residents, ostensibly to help reduce crime, set off a backlash as it 
appeared to criminalize residents. All of these efforts aim to “reform” 
the poor by essentially making the conditions of their poverty so 
onerous, so shameful, that they will decide to get off the public dole.

 

I am of course not a proponent of smoking. I don’t smoke myself, and 
while a disturbing number of my friends do, everyone is aware of the 
impacts of smoking on one’s health. Encouraging public housing residents
 to give up smoking is a positive good, just as it would be for everyone
 to give up tobacco. The issue here is the manner in which this rule 
will be enforced. Threatening evictions may be initially effective, but 
it could lead to a number of unintended consequences. Unlike other 
reasonable nuisance rules, like loud music or loitering, smoking is an
actual chemical addiction, one that takes months, if not years to kick. 
To ask public housing residents to basically go cold turkey when they 
are anywhere near their own homes is to invite evictions and to 
exacerbate greater poverty risk factors. Public housing units are 
residences of last resorts for the poor. It is either a 
government-subsidized apartment or the street for most residents. If 
residents are put out for smoking, the likely outcomes for them can be 
disastrous (job loss, crime, food insecurity, etc.), and much more 
expensive to city government in the long run.

 

In cases like this, when making policy in the best interests of the 
poor, there ought to be an actual poor person at the table, someone to 
situate and ground the theoretical benefits of the public policy in the 
practical, grimy, hard work of asking human beings to change. This is a 
situation which could have been better resolved with more nudge-like, 
incentive-based policy than the Bloombergian strategy of simply trying 
to force social change. A more humane, resident-centered approach would 
have taken the threat of eviction off the table, and instead focused on 
treatment programs including free nicotine-patches, support groups and 
addiction counseling.

 

If (or when) the evictions come, it is unlikely that we will hear about 
them. The reason why no one will make much hay over this is the same 
reason public residents will now have to walk a quarter-mile to have a 
cigarette: because the concerns of the poor are easily muted, and there 
is no easier group of people for politicians to “reform” than the poor-
because the truth is, their vice is not smoking. It is needing help in 
the first place.

One Response to Combating Smoking in Houston’s Public Housing Communities

  1. harleyrider1778 March 28, 2014 at 7:18 am

    SMOKING RATES WENT UP ACROSS THE COUNTRY

    March 13, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/167771/smoking-rate-lowest-utah-highest-kentucky.aspx

    All the smoking rates WENT UP! In the Gallup poll but in my tobacco free kids smoking rates from 2009 are much lower

    Reply

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