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Public housing complexes to go smoke-free

ST. PAUL — Tanya Shafer smokes, but prefers to take it outside.

Shafer, who lives at Colleen Loney Manor, a public-housing apartment complex in West St. Paul, said she often smells secondhand cigarette smoke coming from other units.

"I don't like it," she said, shortly after sucking down a Pyramid Light 100 one afternoon last week. "That's why I always go outside."

Come July 30, all smokers who live in federally funded public housing buildings nationwide won't have a choice but to stop smoking inside under a rule mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The smoke-free policy must also extend to 25 feet from all housing and administrative buildings.

Implementing smoke-free policies across the country in subsidized housing will save approximately $521 million per year, including $341 million in secondhand smoke-related health care expenditures, $108 million in renovation expenses and $72 million in smoking-attributable fire losses, according to a recent study from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, the Dakota County Community Development Agency, which manages the 80-unit Colleen Loney Manor and 243 other federally funded public housing units across the county, is taking the smoking ban another step.

Last month, the CDA notified its residents that smoking will not be allowed inside or around all of the agency's affordable-housing properties starting June 1. In all, the ban will include an additional approximately 2,500 units — making up senior buildings, workforce family townhouses and housing for young adults.

"We decided that as long as the federal government is going ahead with this ban, we'll just pull the Band-Aid off and do it with our entire portfolio," said Tony Schertler, the CDA's executive director.

Additional cost savings expected

The primary reason to go smoke-free is financial, Schertler said. It costs the CDA on average $800 to prepare a nonsmoking senior housing apartment unit for a new tenant. With a smoking unit, the turnover cost is at least three times that because of cleaning and painting and replacing carpet, he said.

"It's just cost-effective for the taxpayers, a cost-reduction effort," Schertler said of the ban.

The CDA and other housing agencies cannot recover turnover costs from smoking residents because courts have found them to be normal wear and tear and reasonable damages, Schertler said.

Banning smoking is also a customer-satisfaction issue for the CDA, he said.

"There's the ambient smoke that is affecting our other tenants, so the quality of their experience is declining when you have smoking in the building," he said.

Schertler does not expect pushback from residents or a large number of smokers moving out. But, even if so, others are in line to move in. The CDA's waiting lists are long: 2,200 households for senior housing; 2,400 households for workforce housing; and 3,475 households for public housing.

In addition to negotiating leases with tenants in the coming months, Schertler said, the CDA will be providing residents with information on smoking-cessation programs and other resources to help them kick the habit.

Few agencies still allow smoking

The CDA is one of just a few agencies left in Minnesota that still allow smoking in their buildings, Schertler said.

"We're basically trying to get into the 21st century here," Schertler said.

The Washington County Community Development Agency implemented a smoke-free rule at its 1,200 senior and workforce housing units in June 2016. The agency phased in the ban as leases with residents came up for renewal, said Ryan Gruber, communications coordinator.

As for enforcement, "our property managers do the very best they can," he said. "But old habits die hard."

South St. Paul operates 298 units of federally funded public housing at two high-rise buildings and will enact the smoke-free rule July 30. The city notified its residents this past July and has begun renewing leases.

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency will also enact the ban at its 4,274 HUD-subsidized rental units July 30.

Schertler said that with federal funds to HUD programs decreasing, local agencies are "looking under every cushion for a quarter to save in order to maintain assets."

"As they have their ­budget battles out in D.C., that's putting more pressure on rent — and we can't raise rent because we're working with affordable populations," he said. "So there's this downward pressure that everybody in affordable housing is feeling today. We're trying to get more out of less. So, are there ways to reduce the wear and tear on buildings? Yeah, don't smoke in them."

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