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Westmoreland County to finalize policy banning smoking in public housing

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Ken Zamborsky lights a cigarette at Hempfield Towers on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The Westmoreland County Housing Authority properties are prepping to go smoke-free to comply with a new federal regulation. County officials expect a formal anti-smoking policy for all units to be enacted this fall.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Ken Zamborsky lights a cigarette at Hempfield Towers on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The Westmoreland County Housing Authority properties are prepping to go smoke-free to comply with a new federal regulation. County officials expect a formal anti-smoking policy for all units to be enacted this fall.
Robert Rideaux smokes a cigarette at Hempfield Towers on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The Westmoreland County Housing Authority properties are prepping to go smoke-free to comply with a new federal regulation. County officials expect a formal anti-smoking policy for all units to be enacted this fall.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Robert Rideaux smokes a cigarette at Hempfield Towers on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The Westmoreland County Housing Authority properties are prepping to go smoke-free to comply with a new federal regulation. County officials expect a formal anti-smoking policy for all units to be enacted this fall.

Ken Zamborsky has no plans to quit smoking even though it may cost him his home when the Westmoreland County Housing Authority finalizes a policy this year to make public housing properties smoke-free.

“I'm going to keep smoking until they kick me out. The only thing I can do is wait and see what happens,” Zamborsky said last week as he sat outside on a patio below his apartment in Hempfield Towers, one of about 2,500 units where smoking will be abolished by the authority.

Housing authority Executive Director Michael Washowich said the smoking ban will be enacted once final rules from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are published in the fall.

HUD has called for the abolishment of smoking in all public housing facilities.

“I think this is something that is not going to be easy, but it is needed,” Washowich said.

Officials said they have no estimate of how many tenants in public housing smoke, but suggested the number is likely to be substantial. Washowich said tenants will have about 12 to 18 months before the smoke-free policy takes full effect.

A period of warnings will be issued, and the authority — along with smoking cessation experts from the Penn State Cooperative Extension — will offer free classes to help residents quit the habit.

Tenants who violate the anti-smoking policy could be disciplined and eventually would face eviction, Washowich said.

The authority instituted smoking bans for common areas of its facilities in 2003, and its newest structure, South Greengate Commons, bars smoking in apartments.

Duquesne University School of Law professor Bruce Ledewitz said there is little that public housing tenants can do to fight a smoking ban.

“Any landlord can do that — institute a smoking ban. There is no protection for smokers under the law. They're being told not to damage an apartment,” Ledewitz said.

That's the argument HUD used and Washowich cited in backing the smoking ban.

Washowich said the authority views a smoking ban as a way to preserve its properties. The cost of repairs needed to fix damage done by smoking has been prohibitive.

According to the federal government, a smoking ban would result in savings to public housing authorities of nearly $153 million, including $42.9 million in renovation costs.

Washowich did not have costs associated with smoking-related damage to local public housing units.

The proposed policy would bar tobacco products from being used in authority-owned properties. E-cigarettes will be permitted under rules proposed by the federal government. Washowich said the authority will follow the government's policy.

The Washington County Housing Authority instituted a smoking ban in all apartments in 2012.

Authority Executive Director Stephen Hall said the prohibition was in response to a series of fires in authority buildings.

“It took about six months for people to get used to the policy. We issued warnings when the policy first went into effect.” Stephens said, noting that residents weren't provided any cessation help.

Westmoreland authority officials want their tenants to quit smoking and enlisted cessation experts to assist at no cost to residents.

But that effort could prove difficult, according to Esther Ulery, a tobacco cessation and prevention specialist with the cooperative extension.

“I think we're going to see people say they'll give it a shot, but a lot of people will have a lot of resistance. Smokers are good people, but they somehow got sucked into this habit,” Ulery said.

Robert Rideaux, 47, a tenant at Hempfield Towers since April, said a ban will not cause him to quit his habit.

“It's a bunch of bull. If you're paying your rent, you ought to do what you want in your house. I'll probably have to go out to the parking lot or down to the road and smoke,” Rideaux said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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