HUD unveiled a proposed policy today in which smoking would be prohibited in public housing apartment homes and communities across the country.  The new proposal would impact nearly one million households and is another effort by the federal government to curtail unwanted exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.  In addition to individual homes and apartments, the smoking prohibition would also mandate that common areas as well as the leasing office all be smoke free.

While introducing the draft new rules, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said in an interview yesterday that the “argument about secondhand smoke is over,” and that smoking is “harmful, and we believe it’s important that we have an environment that’s healthy in public housing.”   In moving to require the prohibitions across the country, federal officials stated they are acting to protect residents from secondhand smoke, which can travel through walls and under doors. Other intended benefits of the policy are expected to be reducing the risk of fires and to lower building maintenance costs.

HUD expects strong comments on both sides of the issues.  Some residents, of course, will welcome what they believe is a vital clean air and health initiative.  Others will view it as big government infringing on their personal rights and adult choices.  HUD anticipates that “smoke free” addendums will be added to new leases as well as lease renewals.  Violations would be treated like other nuisance issues, which are typically reported by staff members or other residents.  Secretary Castro hopes that the ban on smoking will not lead to evictions.

The proposed rule would require housing agencies to prohibit lit cigarettes, cigars, and pipes in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative office buildings. The rule would not apply initially to electronic cigarettes, but federal officials are seeking input about whether to ban them.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposal.  If the rules go into effect, individual public housing agencies would have up to 18 months from the effective date of the final rule to adopt and put their smoke-free policies in place after their own periods of public review and meetings with residents.

From my desk as management’s lawyer, I see a couple of issues.  First, from a fair housing perspective, smoking and smokers are not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.  I do, however, see issues with enforcement.  How are leasing office staff members going to police this new ban, short of walking the halls?  And if HUD does not want violations to lead to evictions, what can management do to ensure the policy is followed?  There will be more to come on this issue, I am sure.

Just A Thought.