For tenants of the Johnston Housing Authority, the new year brought with it a major change in lifestyle. Following the trend of public housing across the country, the JHA has gone smoke free at both Pell Manor and the Aime J. Forand facility.
Johnston joins 16 other public housing authorities in Rhode Island providing smoke free living for residents.
“When someone cooks lasagna, you can smell it over the whole building. You smoke in one apartment and you can smell it one or two apartments down and in the hallway,” said JHA Executive Director David aRusso. “I really believe our residents are going to give it their best effort.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been encouraging housing authorities nationwide to look at the feasibility of going smoke free since 2009, in the wake of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. More recently, they hired an outside group, Health Resources in Action, to assist with policy writing for housing authorities across the country.
“The housing authorities, at that point, nationally, were trying to figure out the best and fairest path to go smoke free,” said Carol Anne Costa, property manager for the Pell and Forand complexes that house roughly 140 people total. “You’re dealing with people who are many times in their 70s and 80s and have been smoking for a lifetime.”
While HUD and housing authorities are concerned with the health of residents, going smoke free also represents a significant cost savings. Cleaning an apartment after a smoker has left is exponentially more difficult and more expensive than the apartment of a non-smoker. JHA maintenance staff must clean, prime and paint using more expensive materials, and have even had to throw out blinds and rugs.
“For public housing agencies, as much as this is an attempt to get everybody healthy, it’s also an attempt to save dollars. When a smoker vacates an apartment, the work that has to be done to get that apartment ready for the next resident is, in some cases, Herculean,” Costa said.
aRusso says the price is easily double.
JHA has been considering the smoke free recommendation for years, but began work in earnest in spring 2012. In March, they sent out a survey to gauge how many smokers lived in JHA apartments and what the public opinion was on the subject. Costa was surprised to find fewer smokers than non-smokers, and even among the group of smokers, sentiments were generally positive. According to aRusso, 77 percent of respondents said they understood and supported the JHA’s decision.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Costa said. “Even the people who were heavily addicted indicated on their survey, ‘I am willing to change my habits.’”
In May, the JHA Commissioners met and the five members unanimously voted to approve a policy prohibiting smoking inside JHA facilities. JHA officials then began meeting with residents to alert them of the change, which went into effect on Jan. 1. They also sent out reminders in the weeks leading up to the new year.
Common areas like hallways, community rooms and lobbies have always been smoke free, but not individual apartments. Under the new policy, smokers must walk at least 25 feet away from the building in order to smoke, and cannot smoke in any contained areas, including the gazebo at Pell.
All new residents who move in will be fully aware of the policy, and existing residents were required to sign a new lease with the amended smoke free language.
Developing parameters was a challenge, especially given the elderly population served by JHA. Some of the smokers are disabled, including a blind woman, so the change presents serious challenges for them.
Marty Church has lived at Pell for four years, and as the resident commissioner, she has dealt with some of the backlash from smokers.
“Unfortunately, some of the smokers came up to me and they’re not thrilled. They say, ‘It’s my apartment; I should be able to do what I want,’” she said. “I don’t feel that way.”
Personally, she is pleased with the change.
“The housing is here for all of us and it’s just a safety issue. I’m thrilled that we’ve gone to non-smoking,” she said.
While JHA has not faced any fires or serious problems due to smokers, other housing authorities have, including Warwick, where a fire caused by a dropped cigarette caused serious damage.
All JHA apartments are equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, with fire alarms positioned in the hallways. Several times each year, Costa would partner with the Johnston Fire Department to educate residents on fire safety. She is hoping to continue those educational sessions, but now bringing in smoking cessation experts. She has already reached out to Tri-Town Community Action about cessation programs available locally, and the resident services coordinator hopes to offer group and individual resources.
“We’re looking, in the very near future, at having someone come in to talk about programs,” Costa said.
Even without cessation programs in place, residents are beginning to change their habits. At least two people have quit entirely, and others are cutting back.
“There’s a definite, noticeable difference,” Church said. “I know of one person in particular, he smokes much, much less.”
Costa says she is “encouraged” by what she has seen so far. ARusso, too, says he is confident that residents are taking the policy seriously, and will benefit in the long run thanks to the change, both financially and in personal health.
“We have a tough job ahead of us, but I think they understand,” he said. “Through attrition, the smoking will wipe itself out.”
The new full policy and a revised application are available on the JHA website at www.johstonhousing.org.