Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority considering smoking ban in its apartments

A new type of smoking ban may be coming to more than 400 Lawrence homes.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is considering a ban that would prohibit residents from smoking inside authority-owned apartments, such as Edgewood Homes, Babcock Place, Peterson Acres and Clinton Place.

“We understand they are all adults and can make the choice of whether to smoke,” said Barbara Huppee, executive director of the authority. “But there is an issue of social justice for people who don’t smoke but are affected by the secondhand smoke and the impact it has on their property. And then, there’s the risk of fire.”

It was a fire in November at Babcock Place that got the authority’s board thinking about a ban. The fire was the result of smoking and caused $40,000 in damages. A fire in 2000 at Babcock caused $250,000 in damages.

The ban would prohibit all indoor smoking in properties owned by the housing authority, which provides subsidized housing to elderly and low-income people. Residents would be allowed to smoke outside, including on covered porches. Huppee said a new state law prohibiting smoking within 10 feet of a doorway won’t apply to housing authority properties because they are residences, not public spaces. Privately owned residences that are part of the authority’s Section 8 housing program would not be covered by the ban.

Reactions from residents have been mixed. One survey by the housing authority found about 70 percent support for some sort of smoking ban. The staff estimates 25 percent to 30 percent of residents in the authority’s 429 units smoke.

“I don’t even begin to understand how they can ban a legal substance in somebody’s own home,” said Pat Benabe, who lives in an authority housing unit. “We’re talking about a lot of older people who have a lifetime habit. I’m not promoting smoking. I wish I hadn’t started, but it is an addiction that you can’t just stop.”

If the ban wins approval — the authority’s board is expected to discuss it at a meeting late this month — Huppee said staff will develop an enforcement strategy. She said enforcement would be gradual and would include programs that would help people stop smoking, if they so desire.

Huppee also said her agency is confident about the legality of a ban. About 150 housing authorities across the country have banned smoking to different degrees, and the department of Housing and Urban Development is now urging the bans, she said.

Some residents still feel like their rights are being infringed.

“I know they say there is nothing in the Constitution that says you have a right to smoke,” Benabe said. “But turn that over and there is nothing in the Constitution that says you don’t have the right to smoke.”

The housing authority’s board next meets at 5:30 p.m. on June 28 at Edgewood Homes, 1600 Haskell Avenue.