The decentralized nature of ownership and administration of public housing creates challenges for developing a cohesive smoking policy. Public housing takes a variety of forms, including publicly-owned and subsidized apartment buildings (housing approximately 2.1 million tenants) as well as voucher or “Section 8” programs for privately owned properties, through which 4.9 million tenants obtain a HUD subsidy to help cover their rent in private housing.2
These programs are administered by separate departments within HUD, each of which sets its own policies. Additionally, states may offer supplemental public housing programs that operate without HUD funding. Thus, regulatory authority over public housing is fragmented, both at the federal level and between HUD and local PHAs. This structure fosters inconsistency in the quality of programs and facilities provided, as well as the policy-making and enforcement practices across public housing programs and local housing authorities.
Reflecting such variation, no-smoking policies are presently the rare exception rather than the rule among PHAs. In recent years, HUD has made clear that it neither requires nor precludes PHAs from adopting smoke-free policies for their properties or programs. HUD’s July 17, 2009 notice signals an important change in the agency’s historically quite neutral position. The notice stresses the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke exposure, particularly for children and the elderly, as well as the risk of fire-related deaths and injuries.
HUD directed PHAs implementing a smoking ban to formalize it by updating the annual PHA Plans they are required to file with HUD, which will enable HUD to track the response to its notice. It also urged that smoking cessation counseling information, referrals, and support be provided to residents. The new policy applies only to the publicly-owned multi-unit housing administered by the department that issued it, the Office of Public and Indian Housing.
It is difficult to gauge how PHAs will respond to HUD’s exhortations. Their market incentive to provide smoke-free housing is lower than private owners. Public housing tenants are often in a position where they cannot “vote with their feet” for smoke-free units as other consumers can. For the same reason, though, PHAs are well positioned to implement smoking restrictions notwithstanding community resistance.
Cost is also a consideration for PHAs, as full decontamination of a 2-bedroom unit can exceed $15,000 and even a simple cleaning of a smoking unit may cost 2 to 3 times as much as cleaning a non-smoking unit. However, long-term cost savings may be realized through reductions in fire risk and avoidance of cleaning costs and other smoke-related facilities costs after initial policy implementation.