Butt out! Why Newark residents are pushing back at feds

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on December 06, 2016

Valerie Hall, a public housing resident at Newark's Terrell Homes, is upset that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is banning smoking at public housing developments across the country.

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Valerie Hall doesn't bother anybody.

She pays her rent, doesn't drink or play loud music at Terrell Homes, a Newark public housing development. The only vice she has is smoking, a 47 year habit that she believes she should be able to enjoy in her public housing apartment in Newark.

"That's my castle,'' she said.

But the federal government, which owns her abode, announced last week that it is banning smoking from all of its public housing developments across the country.  The decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development affects 68,000 residents living in 38,000 apartments in New Jersey. They will not be able to use tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars and pipes when HUD's new policy will take effect in 18 months.

Many Newark residents think the move is authoritative. Not only are residents prohibited from smoking in their apartments, but they also are not allowed to smoke in common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of the property.

"What are they going to do next -  tell you when to (go to the bathroom)?'' Hall, 62, said.

The policy, needless to say, is not going over well with smoking residents in Newark. And some who don't smoke are not crazy about it, either.

"Give them an inch and they want to take a yard,'' said Rosemary Horsley, a Terrell Homes tenant who doesn't smoke. "It's another way for them to get rid of public housing.''

Several residents wonder how in the world HUD is going to enforce the new guidelines.  If caught, will there be inspections, a warning, a fine, possible eviction?

NHA's Executive Director Keith Kinard said  his agency hasn't figured out how to enforce the policy but it will follow the HUD mandate.

"HUD doesn't want see the rule be used as an eviction tool and we feel the same about that,'' Kinard said.

He said it'll be phased in after the agency meets with tenants and the board of commissioners on how best to implement the rule.  Given the size of the housing authority's properties - 7,000 units and 16,000 residents -  Kinard said he'll use up the entire 18 months to implement thedirective, but one clearly  opposed by smokers and at the same time supported by residents who see the merits.

"As a leader of a housing authority, I can appreciate the need to put things in place that are going to save lives and reduce the costs associated with direct maintenance, but at same time, I'm cognizant of the extreme challenge that is going to come with the enforcement of this rule,'' Kinard said. "I hope at end of the day that residents - those that smoke - will see the rule as an opportunity to quit smoking and lead healthier lives.''

John Kitchen, a resident of Seth Boyden Terrace was floored when I told him about it.

"Oh, hell no,'' said Kitchen. "I pay rent where I live at. I should be able to smoke. Leave me alone.''

Kitchen, 59, has been smoking since age 12 and doesn't want to stop. Not even falling asleep with a lit cigarette that caused a fire in his apartment earlier this year is enough of a deterrent.

However, his friend, Herbert Thomas, 63, thinks it might entice him to quit, even though he doesn't like the new rule.

Thomas said he's tried off and on for more than 40 years to kick the habit, and hasn't been successful.

"If it goes into effect, I guess I have to roll with punches. But I don't want to,'' he said.

In making the announcement, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said "every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful second-hand cigarette smoke."

Two women, who reside at Oscar Miles Village in Newark, declined to give their names, but they had this take on HUD's plan.  The federal agency, they said, needs to be more concerned with ridding its properties of crime and drugs at Oscar Miles instead worry about residents taking a drag on a cigarette

Theresa Ellis, who gave up smoking a year ago, said the ban is going to cause chaos. A resident of Bradley Court, Ellis said die-hard smokers are not going to abide by the new rules.

"What gives them the right to come in and tell you that you can't smoke in your home,'' Ellis said. "It's going to take a minute for it to even sink in.''

Dexter Baker, a resident at Seth Boyden Terrace, hopes people comply.

It's about health, and most importantly, safety. He said there are many seniors at his development who have oxygen tanks and they smoke.

"That could be dangerous and cause an explosion or something,''' he said.

His neighbor, Hateemah Green, said the HUD policy is needed in the worse way. She said some smokers are slovenly. They throw their cigarette butts on the ground or extinguish them on the wall and sometimes in the elevator.

This rule is a tough one to make stick. Some residents may follow it, but the majority will take the risk and light up when they close their apartment door. We'll see what happens.

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