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Allegheny County Housing Authority bans smoking in 5 apartment buildings

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Albert Smith, 72, sits outside of the West Mifflin Manor, where smoking inside of the apartments is banned, on Friday, October 3, 2014. Allegheny County Housing Authority banned smoking in five of its public housing projects this week.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Albert Smith, 72, sits outside of the West Mifflin Manor, where smoking inside of the apartments is banned, on Friday, October 3, 2014. Allegheny County Housing Authority banned smoking in five of its public housing projects this week.

When it snows, Albert Smith dreads having to put on a couple of coats and sit in his car in the parking lot of the West Mifflin Manor apartment complex to smoke a cigarette.

But after the Allegheny County Housing Authority banned smoking inside his building this week, he fears that's what he'll have to do.

“I'm not on board,” said Smith, 72, a smoker since he was 15 who sat outside the subsidized apartment complex with a pack of Pall Malls in his shirt pocket and a smoke-free sign tacked to the wall behind him. “I pay $400 a month, and then they tell you what you can't do in your room.”

The housing authority snuffed out smoking inside five authority-managed buildings Wednesday, forcing Smith and other smokers to light up outside.

On Friday, that meant sitting on a bench under West Mifflin Manor's covered entrance or dodging raindrops in a designated — uncovered — smoking area.

“Smokers are not a protected class in this country,” said Frank Aggazio, executive director of the housing authority. “There are health reasons that we have; there are economic reasons. We've had three fires in the past. We've gotten many complaints.”

He said smoking caused three fires in the past 12 years at authority properties, each doing more than $1 million in damages. Jean Guentner, 79, died from burns four days after she fell asleep with a lit cigarette and started a fire at an authority-managed high-rise apartment in Blawnox in 2009.

It costs the authority twice as much to clean and repaint an apartment when a smoker moves out, Aggazio said.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the county health department, said the smoke-free policy will help address obesity and encourage physical activity, according to a statement Friday announcing the housing authority had joined the county's Live Well Allegheny campaign. Secondhand smoke can create cardiovascular complications and has been shown to cause cancer.

The authority offers subsidized housing to senior citizens and low-income families. Most tenants make less than $15,200 a year, 30 percent of the county's median income of $50,664, Aggazio said.

The five buildings that went smoke-free — Andrew Carnegie Apartments in Carnegie, G.W. Carver Hall in Clairton, John Fraser Hall in Turtle Creek, Ohioview Tower in McKees Rocks and West Mifflin Manor in West Mifflin — have 330 apartments. Aggazio hopes to expand the program to about half of the authority's 47 buildings and more than 3,000 units in the next few years.

The Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authority went smoke-free for its 208 units at the beginning of the year. A few tenants have violated the policy, but there has been little opposition, said Ben Laudermilch, the authority's executive director.

Cumberland County gives tenants one warning before they are evicted for smoking. Allegheny County will give tenants four strikes before they are out, Aggazio said.

Private landlords, too, may rent only to non-smokers.

Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, a low-income housing advocate organization, said housing authorities legally can ban tenants from smoking inside buildings. She said it's a sensible policy.

“Being a smoker is not a civil right. It's a lifestyle choice, and it has an impact on other people,” Hersh said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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