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In Louisville Public Housing, Confusion Follows New Smoking Ban

Dosker Manor on an overcast summer evening. The apartments are across the street from the University of Louisville Hospital.
Dosker Manor on an overcast summer evening. The apartments are across the street from the University of Louisville Hospital.

Until last week, 66-year-old David Allen smoked in his apartment and on the balconies in Dosker Manor, a public housing complex in downtown Louisville. But that changed on August 1.  

“I got to get up out of bed after tossing all night, and if I want to smoke, I got to come outside and stand in the middle of the parking lot to smoke,” Allen said, noting that the elevators in Dosker Manor are often broken and going downstairs isn’t as simple as pushing a button.

Residents of Louisville public housing complexes now have to go at least 25 feet away from their building to smoke. This new smoking ban is part of a nationwide policy – passed down through a mandate from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And though the goal is to reduce smoking and second-hand smoke exposure in low-income housing, confusion surrounding the rollout in Dosker Manor has some residents concerned they’ll be evicted.

The Reason For The Ban

Smoking and second-hand smoke can lead to diseases, and research shows people with low-incomes are more likely to be smokers, according to Amanda Fallin-Bennett, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and an expert on smoking.

“Smoke-free public housing has the potential to be a really high-impact public health intervention,” Fallin-Bennett said. “We know that when smokers live in a smoke-free environment, they’re more likely to be able to quit smoking.”

About two million people across the country live in public housing because their incomes are low. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living in poverty are more likely to be smokers. These people also smoke for longer periods of time – about twice as many years as people with an income triple the poverty rate.

In Dosker Manor, which is specifically for people over age 65 and those with disabilities, there’s also the danger of a shared heating and cooling system, according to Metropolitan Housing Coalition Executive Director Cathy Hinko.

“When you have a shared HVAC system with other people, you are circulating that poison to other people as well,” Hinko said. “So trying to make it a healthier environment not just within that apartment, but within the whole system, is where we are going.”

As part of the smoking ban rollout, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness is working with the Housing Authority to educate residents.

“When we knew that the smoke-free policy was coming out, we worked to do some residents-based focus groups to get their feedback on the policy that was coming, and get their input on how best to speak to the whole of the public housing residents about what the policy was and what was coming,” said Community Health Supervisor Andrea Doughty.

That work also included holding smoking cessation classes at public housing locations and posting fliers for these smoking cessation classes.

Botched Rollout

But in Louisville’s Dosker Manor, residents say the ban is off to a rocky start.

A resident newsletter distributed on August 1 wrote that residents could smoke on the benches outside each building. That turned out to be inaccurate.

50-year-old Pamela Gold was smoking outside on the first night of the ban — right next to those benches —  when a security guard issued her and about 14 other people warnings.

“I was trying to show him the paper that we can smoke on the benches,” Gold said. “He was like, ‘Well you gonna get a write-up.’ I mean, I follow the rules. But the paper said that we could smoke right here on the benches.”

Lisa Osanka, the interim director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, said that newsletter was distributed by the Dosker Manor residents’ council, not the housing authority, and she didn’t know where they’d gotten the “false” information. She says the Housing Authority made high-quality maps of every public housing complex and the 25-foot no-smoking zone around them, but they were never distributed to Dosker Manor residents.

But the warning those residents got is the first step on a scale that also includes $15, $30 and $45 fines. Osanka said the final penalty is eviction.

“If there’s a repeated violation it could result in lease termination if the resident refuses to comply with the no-smoking policy,” Osanka said. “We don’t want to evict people.”

During the first week of the new policy, there also weren’t seating areas for the smokers – in a building for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Hinko with the Housing Coalition said that while there’s lots of evidence for the smoking policy, the implementation is equally as important.

“It sounds like a very confusing and unclear execution of the policy,” Hinko said. “All those people should have that warning eliminated. I also think, put benches where people can smoke. They’re not pariahs. They should have clarity.”

Dosker Manor resident David Allen said the Housing Authority should have been more prepared.

“I think they should have made preparations, if not but a small tent or something like that you could go sit in and smoke,” Allen said. “They just threw it out there.”

And some residents are worried the warnings they received due to the confusion puts them one step closer to eviction, and possible homelessness.

Stewart Pope, the advocacy director with the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, said residents might have a case to have those warnings dismissed if it wasn’t clear where the smoking areas were.

“There would be an argument for somebody that if the smoking areas weren’t clearly designated, that it wasn’t really proper to have a formal warning to go out and say, this isn’t the right area to go,” Pope said.

Pamela Gold and David Allen at Dosker Manor both have family they could stay with if they are eventually evicted. But Pope said many residents do not.

“Public housing is kind of housing of last resort. If someone gets evicted from public housing there’s a good chance they’ll be homeless,” Pope said.

Housing Authority Interim Director Lisa Osanka says the warnings issued on August 1 still stand. As of earlier this week, the authority was working on creating both seating for residents and signs at designated smoking areas.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.