Proposed Smoking Ban in NYCHA Apartments Causes Concern of NYPD Enforcing Rules
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2015

A proposed federal ban on smoking in public housing has caused concern that, if adopted, the federal ban would affect some 180,000 New Yorkers living in public housing and lead to intrusive police practices in neighborhoods of low-income residents of color.

“We are very concerned,” Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit, told the New York Times. “My father died from cigarettes. But I don’t think that he should have lost his home because he was a smoker.”




The New York Times
Smoking Ban Proposal a Surprise to Some Public Housing Tenants
By J. David Goodman and Mireya Navarro
NOV. 12, 2015

With more than 400,000 listed tenants and a backlog of repair requests at its sprawling properties, the New York City Housing Authority has often relied on police officers to enforce the rules governing those who live in its buildings.

The practice, already a flash point for criticism from residents and their advocates, is likely to come under even greater scrutiny if a proposed federal ban on smoking in public housing is adopted.

Tenants, lawmakers and public housing experts were quick to raise concerns that enforcement of the ban — which was announced on Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and would prohibit smoking in all indoor areas, including apartments — could lead to new rounds of intrusive police practices in some of the same minority neighborhoods where the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics were most heavily employed.

“This ban gives the N.Y.P.D. a greater license to annoy us,” said Clarence Jones, 65, a resident of the Lexington Houses in the East Harlem section of Manhattan, who has smoked since he was 20.

The ban would affect nearly one million households across the country, including 178,000 in New York City, home to the nation’s largest public housing authority. In interviews in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, many housing authority tenants said they were puzzled by the proposal. Some said that smoking was among the least of their concerns.

“My apartment desperately needs a paint job,” said Samuel Higgs, 60, who also smokes and was sharing a bench outside the Lexington Houses with Mr. Jones. “My gas hasn’t worked for a month. You’re not going to fix my gas and then tell me I can’t smoke in my own house?”

Last year, the Police Department stepped up its enforcement of authority rules, which prohibit noncriminal activities such as barbecuing without a permit and “lingering” in common areas. The push, which police officials said was a response to tenant complaints, increased the number of reports of rule-breaking being sent to the authority, known as Nycha. The city also settled a federal suit this year involving the police practice of stopping, questioning and, sometimes, arresting people for trespassing in public housing buildings.

Housing authority officials say they do not want the Police Department to play a role in enforcing the proposed smoking ban. And federal authorities stressed that they did not want the ban, which is meant to protect residents from the effects of secondhand smoke, to be enforced through evictions.

More than 600 public housing agencies, most of them in the West, Northwest and Northeast regions of the country, have instituted smoking bans voluntarily. “So far they’ve worked out well,” Julián Castro, the federal housing secretary, said in an interview. “What we’ve heard is that they are surprised how well residents have responded.”

Last year, after soliciting feedback from agencies that had adopted smoke-free policies, the federal housing department issued formal guidance recommending the “graduated enforcement to assist residents with compliance and prevent evictions.” Agencies with smoking bans in place said they had relied on oral and written warnings for the first few lease violations, while providing smoke-cessation materials to help those who wanted to quit. In rare cases, the agencies said, repeat offenders ultimately received eviction notices.

Still, many of those interviewed said they were worried that the ban could increase the number of people being forced from their homes. Violations of Nycha rules can form the basis for eviction, though rarely are tenants evicted for a single noncriminal infraction.

“We are very concerned,” said Judith Goldiner, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit. “My father died from cigarettes. But I don’t think that he should have lost his home because he was a smoker.”

The Police Department assigns officers to patrol the grounds of public housing developments as well as inside buildings. As recently as the 1970s, housing officers spent much of their time enforcing noncriminal authority rules, though the practice diminished as crime rates rose. Now, officers are more likely to use the rules as a pretext for talking to people they deem suspicious, said Fritz Umbach, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied policing in New York’s public housing.

“To the outside observer, it’s easy to imagine that this will result in cops busting people left and right for smoking, but that’s the least likely outcome,” he said. “It’s not as if the rules of Nycha are remotely being enforced now. It’s incredibly spotty and often strategic.”

The presence of officers acting as de facto hall monitors inside housing developments differentiates the smoking ban being proposed for public housing from those instituted by privately owned apartment buildings, co-ops and condos. It was not clear on Thursday what officers would be instructed to do if, under the ban, they arrived on the floor of an authority building and smelled cigarette smoke coming from an apartment. The Police Department said in a statement that it could not “comment on a proposed Nycha regulation.”

“It’s the latest excuse for overpolicing,” Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who leads the City Council’s public housing committee, said. “If the federal government is generally concerned about improving public health, how about fixing roofs or removing mold?”

The city already bans smoking at work sites and in public spaces, and Nycha prohibits it in lobbies and hallways. For public housing residents worried about secondhand smoke, an indoor smoking ban is the logical next step.

“The smoke makes me sick,” said Dorothy Venning, 71, a tenant of 830 Amsterdam Avenue, a Nycha building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It gets in your clothes; it gets in your furniture.”

Ms. Venning’s building began a voluntary effort to ban indoor smoking this year, she and other residents said. Under a pilot program supported by Nycha, 85 percent of 159 apartments signed a pledge to keep their homes smoke-free.

Shirley Williams, president of the building’s residents’ association and a former smoker, said tenants had succeeded in enforcing the voluntary effort in hallways and the lobby, but not in the privacy of people’s individual apartments.

Some public housing tenants, including Jimmy Crowder, 59, objected to the proposed ban for safety reasons. A 10-year resident of the Ingersoll Houses in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, Mr. Crowder said his nephew, in his 20s, occasionally stayed with him and smoked cigars near an open window. Better that than outside, Mr. Crowder said, particularly late at night.

“Around here it’s always something going on,” he said. “There could be a crime going on or a shooting. It’s dangerous.”