Theoretically at least, New York has been a smokeless city for years now: Officials began a cigarette crackdown in the late 1980s, eventually banning smoking in restaurants and bars in 2002 and select outdoor spaces in 2011, including public parks, where enforcement is almost non-existent. Public housing was an exception until Monday, when the New York City Housing Authority and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene kicked off an initiative to improve air quality for those living and working in NYCHA apartments. Public housing is now smoke-free, starting today.
NYCHA explains that the move comes in accordance with an order from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, mandating that public housing nationwide must eliminate indoor smoking by July 30th. As such, it is now illegal to use cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and hookahs within 25 feet of NYCHA buildings.
According to the text of the new rule, if NYCHA staff observes someone smoking, or sees "evidence of use of a prohibited tobacco product within a restricted area," or if there have been three complaints against a particular person for violating the rule, that person must attend an "informal resolution meeting" and sign a written acknowledgement that if they break the rules again within one year, NYCHA will begin the proceedings to terminate their lease.
A spokesperson from NYCHA insisted that public health, not terminating leases, was the aim of the rule, and that the lease termination proceedings take months, and can be stopped if the tenant proves they are no longer violating their lease.
"I think this will be one of the hardest rules to follow," Perry Rumnit, Jr., a NYCHA resident, says in a promotional video for the policy. "I feel like so many people have been smoking in their houses for so long, to now you're just putting a stop to it and trying to either punish or give you a consequence, people don't take well to that at all. I don't see how we're going to push that forward when there's so much other things happening in Brownsville."
The dangers of smoking are well-documented, but as Rumnit points out, they may not be the authority's biggest priority.
In June, federal prosecutors charged that the Housing Authority deliberately misled inspectors when it came to things like lead paint, holes in walls, rodents and roaches, and long-neglected repairs. As a result, at least 800 children under the age of six showed elevated levels of lead in their blood, seniors and residents with disabilities often found themselves trapped in or locked out of their apartments as broken elevators went unrepaired, and apartments descended into an untenable state of disrepair as the agency—faced with a snowballing list of complaints—began ignoring maintenance requests. Rather than taking care of residents, prosecutors said, NYCHA inspectors opted to stop showing up and actively worked to cover up the agency's negligence. According to a physical needs assessment from 2017, the repair bill would total nearly $32 billion in the next five years alone.