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Trump should keep HUD's smoke-free rule

Donald Trump should look at HUD's smoking ban like a business question.

Sun reporter Colin Campbell got an earful when he went to Perkins Homes to ask residents what they thought about the Department of Housing and Urban Development's plan to ban smoking in all of its public housing units and within 25 feet of its buildings. The smokers he talked to asked, in language more colorful than you find in the comments section of the Federal Register, how such a rule could possibly be enforced, what HUD could do about it if they caught you smoking and, generally, what right the agency has to tell you what to do in your own home. Good questions, all, and ones housing agencies in Baltimore and across the country will be grappling with in the months ahead.

The rationale from HUD's perspective is pretty straightforward. It is a landlord, and it has to make cost-benefit calculations related to the policies it sets out in its leases. Establishing this rule won't be free. It involves re-writing leases, educating residents, enforcing the ban and, in some cases, expenses to create designated smoking areas outside the smoke-free envelope the regulation requires. But it also comes with substantial savings. Non-smoking apartments come with fewer maintenance and turnover costs, and fires associated with smoking are common and expensive. Meanwhile, about a third of HUD units are already non-smoking under a voluntary program, and managers there have reported that the costs of going smoke-free were less than anticipated.

But the Perkins Home smokers' questions remain. Enforcement, in particular, was a major issue as HUD contemplated the rule, with housing agencies balking at the idea that they would be forced to divert already overburdened staff to become smoking police and residents worried that relying on complaints to identify violations would lead to conflicts. However, that objection may underestimate the degree to which smoking already causes conflicts in public housing (and multi-family housing generally). Second-hand smoke has been shown to travel through ventilation systems, under doors, through windows or even through walls. What smoking tenants do in their homes does affect their neighbors. This rule simply provides a framework for managers to deal with those conflicts.

What happens when a tenant is caught violating the rule is a major concern. HUD is requiring that the no-smoking clause be an enforceable provision of tenants' leases, meaning that violations could lead to evictions. Given that public housing residents often have few, if any, other options for safe housing, there is a real risk that over-zealous enforcement could cast some residents into homelessness. Some of the comments submitted to HUD noted the particular injustice that would be caused if children are forced out onto the streets because their parents smoke in the home.

HUD is largely leaving it up to local housing agencies to decide how to enforce the rule, and we would encourage them to adopt a graduated set of enforcement tools that leave evictions as a last (and extremely rare) resort. HUD provides substantial guidance based on the experience of agencies that have already gone smoke-free, with both negative enforcement actions (like fines) and positive ones (like smoking cessation programs and accommodations to make compliance easier).

The new rule doesn't require local housing agencies to provide smokers with help quitting or to establish designated smoking areas, but both are good ideas, and both ease the long-term difficulties of enforcement. Smoking areas can come with start-up costs, particularly if an agency provides seating or cover from the weather, but such facilities make it easier for smokers to know how far from buildings they need to be, and they mitigate fears that smokers will be displaced to unsafe environments.

The other big question hanging over this new rule is whether President-elect Donald Trump's administration will reverse it. Mr. Trump has never smoked (nor does he drink alcohol), and many of his properties are smoke-free. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, once famously wrote that "smoking doesn't kill" in an essay railing against government regulation of tobacco. "The relevant question is, what is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric?"

But the lens through which the new administration should look at this is not one of personal freedom but of the real estate business; after all, Mr. Trump is about to be the landlord for nearly 1.2 million units nationwide. One study found that it costs an extra $1,674 on average to prepare an apartment for a new tenant if a smoker lived there before. Fires from smoking cost HUD $4.7 million a year. In all, a mid-range estimate for the fiscal effects of the policy suggests total savings of more than $200 million a year, when the health and welfare of residents is taken into account. If Mr. Trump is going to get better deals for the American people, keeping this rule would be a good place to start.

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