Smoke-free housing slower to come to buildings that need it most


Second-hand smoke in low-income households where rates of asthma are nearly twice that of middle and high-income households exacerbates asthma systems and contributes to other health conditions. Photo Credit: AP

Second-hand smoke in low-income households where rates of asthma are nearly twice that of middle and high-income households, exacerbates asthma symptoms and contributes to other health conditions. Photo: AP

The Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership is promoting its smoke-free housing initiative throughout Midtown West to improve air quality for residents, including asthmatics irritated by second-hand cigarette smoke in multi-unit dwellings where up to 65 percent of the air is shared.

According to a study from a Minnesota-based organization called Live Smoke-Free, air in multi-unit dwellings travels through uneven baseboards, gaps around steam pipes and centralized ventilation systems. Non-smoking neighbors may be inadvertently breathing secondhand smoke in buildings where smokers live.  

The New York City Community Health Survey estimates that there were 5,000 asthma cases in the area defined as Chelsea-Greenwich Village in 2012, up from 2,000 in 2009. According to the New York City Department of Health, people who live in low-income households suffer from asthma at rates almost twice that of households with high income.

Maria Pico, the borough manager of the Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership, said that while the smoke-free housing initiative targets the entire borough, its focus is on low-income areas. “When you live in such close proximity to other people, your home isn’t necessarily your castle where you can do whatever suits you,” she said. “There is no safe level of second-hand smoke exposure.”

The New York City Department of Health reports that 57 percent of nonsmoking New Yorkers have elevated levels of cotinine, a chemical found in cigarette smoke, as a result of second-hand smoke inhalation. The chemical is a contributing cause of heart disease, lung cancer, sudden infant death syndrome and other health conditions.

Smoking in common areas of buildings with 10 units or more is illegal under the New York City Smoke-free Air Act, but because the law is primarily self-enforced there is little evidence that it works.  The New York City Department of Health suggests that landlords treat smoking violations as they would any other lease violation.

At the Robert Fulton Houses, a low-income New York City Housing Authority development on 9th Avenue between 16th and 19th streets, it is common to walk through billowing cigarette from residents who gather outside, just to get to the front door of any of its 11 buildings.  While residents are allowed to smoke in their apartments, many of them smoke in the buildings’ hallways and staircases, too, in defiance of the smoke-free legislation.

Delores Rippy is a smoker with six grandchildren who lives in a five-bedroom apartment at the Robert Fulton Houses.  Rippy, who has lived in the development for 15 years, smokes in her apartment while her grandchildren are at home, though she smokes in her bedroom with the door shut in an effort to prevent her grandchildren from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. “If I’m smoking, you shouldn’t be in my room,” she said.

Four of her six teenage grandchildren have asthma, but she doubts that her smoking affects her grandchildren’s asthma significantly. “It could be a lot of things, not just the smoke,” she said, pointing to the thick mold in her bathroom, a result of a poor ventilation system, and droppings from mice and cockroaches that she feels probably do more damage than her cigarette smoke.

Dr. Matthew Perzanowski, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, studies environmental exposures that lead to asthma, and echoes Rippy’s sentiment. “Second-hand smoke is clearly related but it’s definitely not the sole cause,” he said, adding that asthma prevalence is higher in low-income areas, where there are high numbers of mouse and cockroach complaints, because the pests and their droppings contain asthma-exacerbating allergens, and in buildings that burn dirty heating fuel that yields higher carbon emissions.

“The variation from neighborhood to neighborhood is stunning,” he said.  The amount of asthma cases in Chelsea is relatively low in comparison to poorer areas of the five boroughs like the South Bronx, where there were 40,000 cases in 2012.  

For residents in developments like the Fulton Houses, second-hand smoke often takes a backseat to other issues.  “My goal is to make sure these families are never displaced,” said Fulton Houses tenant association president Miguel Acevedo. Acevedo said the preservation of the development amid the encroaching gentrification is a top concern, which leaves environmental issues like air quality in and around the development low on his agenda.

Acevedo estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of Fulton Houses residents smoke, which aligns with the 2012 New York City Community Health Survey that says nearly 17 percent of adults in the Chelsea-Greenwich Village area smoke. He says there hasn’t been any smoking cessation or smoke-free housing outreach in his development – but it’s hard to put a number on how many asthma cases there are. “A lot of people try to keep it private unless you really know the family,” he said.

To him, that concern for privacy is a barrier to understanding the full scope of health issues that exist for his fellow tenants.

Pico said it is more difficult to encourage low-income developments to go smoke-free than newer, luxury buildings because of the many other issues and problems that exist in housing projects.  “Quite frankly, I come in not knowing the reality of things [in that development],” she said, noting that crime, safety and employment are often bigger concerns for residents of low-income neighborhoods.

Pico also said that some of the loudest pushback she’s received comes from nonsmokers who sometimes see her work as an attempt at another citywide ban targeting low-income families, like the failed large-size soda ban. “It’s more of a perception that we’re trying to take away someone’s rights, but after we talk to them they usually realize everyone has the right to breathe clean air,” she said.

Pico said many housing projects are trying to add environmentally friendly features like community gardens, and her hope is that the Manhattan Smoke-free Partnership will start to see smoke-free housing become a part of those initiatives. “Our attempt is to package in smoke-free housing with the rest of the improvements,” she said. The Manhattan Smoke-free Partnership works with other organizations like the New York City Department of Health and the New York City Housing Authority to advocate for smoking cessation and other healthy lifestyle choices.

Most of the 2,000 units that the Manhattan Smoke-free Partnership has had success in turning smoke-free are in luxury buildings, but Pico remains hopeful about locations like Fulton Houses. “We’re turning the tide with management companies,” she said. 

Rippy said it’s unlikely that she’ll quit smoking. She doesn’t think smoking in her room with the door closed is a detriment to her grandchildren’s health. “Some of my grandchildren have asthma,she said, “and it is what it is.”