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Lessons learned on the way to ‘smoke-free’

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 11/13/2017 2:18:59 PM

It’s a long-established fact that smoking is bad for your health. It was in 1964 that the U.S. Surgeon General issued its most hard-hitting and consequential report on the negative health effects of smoking. And in the years since then, smoking has more than halved.

However, in 2014 alone, nearly 500,000 adults still died prematurely because of smoking. Annually, the total economic costs due to tobacco are more than $289 billion. If the nation continues on our current trajectory, 5.6 million children alive today who are younger than 18 years of age will die prematurely as a result—primarily due to secondhand smoke. And those children don’t have to be living with a smoker to be at risk: Research has shown that in rental homes, secondhand smoke travels from apartment to apartment, seeping through electrical outlets, heating and duct work, and structural gaps. (One study in the Boston area found evidence of nicotine in 80 percent of the nonsmoking units tested.) Likewise, the U.S. Fire Administration has found that smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths. 

That’s why the Surgeon General’s “Call to Action to Promote Healthy Homes” places a heavy emphasis on curtailing smoking among residents. It’s also why the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last year that public housing providers would be required to provide a smoke-free environment for their residents over the following 18 months. For similar reasons, many private rental developers and managers are taking the same approach. But how can a no-smoking policy be fairly and effectively phased in when at least some existing renters already have established habits?

Here are some stories, lessons and tips from a few NeighborWorks network members who already have, or are about to, go smoke-free.

Better Housing Coalition, Virginia

The Better Housing Coalition owns and operates 15 rental communities with 1,440 apartments and approximately 2,500 residents, says Stacie Birchett, the NeighborWorks network member’s Director of Communications. The decision in mid-2016 to go smoke-free was driven, she says, both by practical asset-management considerations and public health-imperatives.

“Implementing a nonsmoking policy has saved us as much as 50 percent in unit turn costs, due to less need for repainting, cleaning or replacement of carpets and window treatments, and use of ozone machines to make a smoking unit ready for lease,” explains Birchett. “The cost of making these units lease-ready was sometimes as much as $7,000 for each one, especially those occupied by seniors who tend to remain in their units longer.”

Going smoke-free also has reduced the time required to transition from one tenant to another. According to Birchett, homes formerly occupied by smoking residents typically require twice as long to prepare for the next tenant, depending on the length of time they lived there and the severity of the smoke impact on the unit. In contrast, apartments with nonsmoking tenants only require five days on average to “make ready.”

“However, although our operating costs have been reduced since our ‘Breathe Easy’ campaign was implemented, the primary reason to go nonsmoking across our portfolio is that we felt it was the right thing to do for the health of our residents, including children affected by secondhand smoke, staff and guests,” she says. 

The new policy is simple and straightforward: Residents and their guests may not smoke inside any of the buildings; outside, smokers must be at least 25 feet from the building entrance and apartment windows.

Birchett says Better Housing Coalition didn’t survey residents prior to the rollout of the new policy to determine how many smoked. However, it has found that senior citizens both face the greatest challenges (with some seeking alternate housing) and experience the most benefits.

“Those who stuck with it told us they feel better, can taste food better and, due to the monthly savings, can afford some amenities, like cable TV, that they hadn’t been able to take advantage of before,” says Birchett “For those on a fixed income, the quitters in effect gave themselves a raise.”

To ease the transition, a “rolling” phase-in is being implemented, with completion by the end of this year. New renters are offered only smoke-free leases and existing residents must accept the same when renewing their leases or recertifying  their income eligibility. The nonprofit’s external affairs team collaborated with the property management division to develop a “Breathe Easy” educational campaign, introduced in resident meetings and promoted frequently using posters and flyers.

Members of the resident services staff provided tenants with a list of resources to help them quit smoking if necessary, including the local health department, primary-care physicians and the American Lung Association.

Her messages to other property owners:

  • Over plan and over communicate.
  • Start the education process early.
  • Provide both verbal and written communications.
  • Prepare for unplanned vacancies due to residents who decide to move elsewhere, and have a marketing plan in place to fill those vacancies. 
  • Gather data on the number of residents who smoke and smoking-related turn costs prior to rolling out the initiative, to better track results.

Rural Neighborhoods, Florida

Rural Neighborhoods announced in May its own decision to go smoke-free in three of its 22 rental developments, in connection with HUD’s National Healthy Homes Month. The nonprofit is phasing in the policy gradually, with those who currently smoke allowed until Jan. 1 to stop smoking in their rental homes.

President Steve Kirk says the nonprofit’s primary motivation was health improvement. “We had conducted a baseline community health survey with grants from NeighborWorks America and LISC, and we found that residents want to improve their exercise and nutritional habits. They also understand the impact of secondhand smoke,” says Kirk. The smoke-free policy is being implemented along with actions such as a new community garden, where nutritious cooking classes are held as well.

The first three communities for the rollout were chosen due to their location in neighborhoods targeted for revitalization (including a focus on health) and/or other already-planned “disruptions” necessitated by priority needs such as building rehab.  “In other words,” says Kirk, “we implemented the change at a time when it was easier to absorb, because change was underway already.” However, the remainder of the Rural Neighborhoods properties will go smoke-free as well in the next two years.

His team estimates that 15-20 percent of residents in the developments smoke. To help them kick the habit, Rural Neighborhoods is partnering with Tobacco-Free Collier (named for the county). That’s the “carrot” part of the program. The “stick” is the lease, which makes smoking a violation. (However, although the HUD lease template allows one tenant to “sue” a neighbor for violating the rule, Kirk says they aren’t going that route.)
While two of the three properties will ban smoking altogether, one provides a designated space in a parking area outside the multi-family complex. Kirk says they are still evaluating the latter. “We’re studying the related liability issues,” he says. “Is it well lighted enough to minimize assault risk? Is it free of fall hazards? Is it lighted? We might end up abandoning that quite quickly.”

His message to other property managers: “It’s not so hard. It’s a little uncomfortable, because you have relationships with tenants and it creates a certain amount of upset. But smoke-free environments are spreading everywhere—from workplaces to even bars. Just commit some staff time to work through the 90-120 day transition so you’re fair to existing tenants.”

Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp., Boston

Since September 2014, CSNDC has participated in a Smoke Free Housing Campaign as part of the “Let’s Get Healthy Boston” initiative. Through the initiative, a group of residents trained as “healthy community champions” knocked on more than 600 doors to educate their fellow renters about the health and financial benefits of smoke-free housing. Today, the smoke-free requirement is “baked” into the recertification process necessary for low-income residents to keep their housing vouchers.

Jason Boyd, CSNDC’s Director of Community Organizing and Resident Resources, lists these lessons for others:
  • Partnerships are critical to keep public health front and center and when offering resources to help residents quit smoking.
  • Using residents to influence residents is highly effective; community building and engagement teams should work closely with property management.
  • Run a positive health campaign. For example, instead of no-smoking signs, say “welcome to a smoke-free community.” Boyd advises: “As you go further down the socioeconomic ladder, you encounter so many restrictions, people telling you what to do. So instead, make it empowering, and while you’re at it, use education as an organizing tool. Focus on the larger concept of healthy community.”

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