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In wake of Pariseau high-rise fire, Manchester housing officials consider smoking ban

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 20. 2013 10:12PM

MANCHESTER - Top officials at the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority said the organization will discuss a smoking ban in the apartments it owns, after a smoking-related fire last week at the Pariseau high rise.

The housing authority has so far resisted calls from the federal government to convert the authority's 1,271 apartments into smoke-free zones, but officials said it will be discussed, at least informally, among the governing board of the authority.

"Obviously, with what's happened at the Pariseau, it's something the board should talk about," said George Copadis, chairman of the housing authority Board of Commissioners. "It's a double-edged sword; these folks, basically it's their homes."

Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development encouraged directors of public housing authorities to make some or all of their properties smoke-free. Most public housing authorities in New Hampshire have banned indoor smoking - including apartments. But the larger authorities, such as Manchester, Nashua and Concord, have not, according to data compiled by the New Hampshire Tobacco Prevention & Control Program.

Some housing authorities have been smoke-free for years.

At the 580-unit Portsmouth Housing Authority, a smoking ban went into effect in July 2009, said Craig Welch, the newly named executive director. He said the smoking restrictions protect the health of non-smoking residents and employees.

Tenants can smoke, but not in their apartments or indoor common areas. Some of Portsmouth's larger projects offer outdoor smoking areas.

"It's still difficult," Welch said, adding that mentally ill tenants are the ones who most often violate the smoking ban. Although no one has been evicted for violating the smoking provisions of their lease, that is possible, he said.

The 250-unit Laconia Housing Authority went smoke-free in August 2011. Smoking is prohibited on housing authority property entirely. Interim Director Claire LaMay said if smoking were allowed outdoors, smoke could drift into apartments.

"We do not stop people from smoking; they just cannot smoke on our property," she said,

Both housing authorities gave lengthy notices of the change in policy. No-smoking provisions were added to individual leases when they came up for renewal. And the authorities offered smoking cessation programs to tenants.

Stewart Property Management, which manages privately owned, low-income apartments in New Hampshire, has also taken steps to make its properties smoke-free, including the downtown Carpenter Center in Manchester.

HUD urged public housing authorities last May to make the change, noting that the elderly, youth and people with chronic illness are especially susceptible to second-hand smoke and related illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer, HUD said.

It also said that smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths in multi-family buildings, based upon a 2005 report. The HUD recommendations are not binding.

Dick Dunfey, executive director of the MHRA, said a no-smoking policy has been discussed at the staff level. Currently, smoking is prohibited in common areas such as hallways and activity rooms.

He said tenants haven't been pressing for a smoking ban. Several months ago, one resident complained about cigarette smoke around the entrance of a building. The staff encouraged smokers not to smoke so close to the entrance, and they complied, he said.

Dunfey is cool to a ban, and said it's not wise to set policy based on a single incident, such as the Pariseau fire.

"Residents of Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority properties are living in their homes," Dunfey said, "they have the right to the peaceful enjoyment and liberties of their own homes."

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