Smoking would be banned in public housing nationwide under a rule proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

There are nearly 1.2 million public housing units across the country. Through HUD’s voluntary policy and local initiatives, more than 228,000 public housing units are already smoke-free. If finalized, the rule would expand the impact to another 940,000 public housing units.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has adopted a smoke-free policy that covers its public housing units, including those at Oakdale Street Apartments

"We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases," said HUD Secretary Julián Castro in a prepared statement. "This proposed rule will help improve the health of more than 760,000 children and help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in healthcare, repairs and preventable fires." 

HUD’s proposed rule would require more than 3,100 public housing agencies (PHAs) across the country to implement smoke-free policies in their developments within 18 months of the final rule. Read HUD's proposed rule. The proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days

The proposal does not cover mixed-finance projects such as low-income housing tax credit developments.

“This is an important public health issue,” says Amy Glassman, an attorney with the Ballard Spahr firm in Washington, D.C. “It’s not only the health of the tenants but also their neighbors. A number of housing authorities are already addressing the issue on their own.”

However, such a ban raises significant issues.

“I have concerns about imposing federal requirements to do this,” Glassman says. “Funding is scarce, and this creates yet another regulation for public housing authorities to comply with if it were implemented. Compliance is expensive. I also have general enforcement concern about how do you really implement a regulation like this. You have to think about who’s going to enforce this. Is it your maintenance people who inspect units? Is it your police force that’s protecting public safety?”

Glassman, whose clients include PHAs, says she believes there are ways to implement a policy in a thoughtful manner, but the path will be complicated.

“You give people warnings and you give them access to no-smoking resources,” she says. “The first step would never be eviction. However, to implement this type of regulation, at some point, a housing authority would need to be able to evict for smoking. I question whether they have the resources to do this, and whether the judicial system will be willing to evict low-income families for smoking.”

“I think trying to prohibit smoking is a good thing, but the devil is in the details and the implementation,” Glassman says.

The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA) also pointed to the financial pressures that local PHAs are under.

"For the new smoke-free policies to be effective across the nation at every housing authority, it will be essential for HUD to provide the necessary support in terms of clear rules, training and technical assistance, and maximum flexibility at the local level,” said CLPHA. "Most significantly, while the health benefits of smoke-free properties are indisputable, also undeniable is the reality that chronic underfunding has left the nation's housing authorities with $26 billion in repairs and upgrades that cannot be performed due to lack of money.

Many of these capital improvements would positively impact the well-being of public housing residents as much or more than the smoke-free policies, according to the council.